Stray Dog Arts

notes from the studio...

This morning my heart feels full. I look up and a bright red cardinal lands on the bare branch outside the window. In a colorless late-autumn landscape, the color shocks me. The branch bows and drops with the cardinal's slight weight. I feel a similar weight in my heart and the sight is nearly enough to bring tears to my eyes. The branch springs back into place as the cardinal flies away and a chickadee settles onto the branch above.

These days, I am up to my eyeballs in paint. I'm preparing for an upcoming exhibition, RESCUED: Dogs of Pet Haven. I will be displaying a sneak preview of the series at Pet Haven's Fall Benefit on Saturday and will hang the rest of the show Sunday night. Needless to say, the pressure is on. Luckily, when it comes to art making, I seem to thrive under pressure.

Last night, in need of a break, I sat on the floor with my sleepy pup, Ella, and studied/scrutinized the work surrounding me. There are now so many paintings that I've run out of room to hang them. Before sitting down I had been working on the portrait of a beautiful boxer/American Bull dog mix named Spice Girl (now Bella, her adopted name). She was rescued by Karen Good of Red Lake Rosie's Rescue. Her back led was injured when they found her, and she carried a litter of pups, of which only 2 out of the 5 survived. Her leg required amputation but has healed well. The best part of this story is that she's been adopted by a family who loves her beyond words. There is a strength in her that had me hooked from the moment I laid eyes on her photograph.

As I work on her portrait her gentle eyes and strong demeanor cause my heart to break open. Sitting on the floor, with my pup snuggled warmly on my lap, I noticed that my work has "matured" in the past year. The thought struck me as odd since it is a concept that I would normally attribute to the work of musicians as they grow into their work....musicians like Norah Jones or Ani Difranco or Bonnie Raitt--the ones that started young, got famous, and stuck with it. Perhaps it isn't so much that my work has matured, rather that it has become more purposeful. As I find myself more deeply involved in my endeavors, it is interesting to me how this deepening shows up on the canvas as well. I don't get used the sensation of my heart breaking open, no matter how many times it happens in a day or a year. I think, instead, I've become more sensitive to it.

The other day I finished a portrait of Hazel, a pit bull mix also taken in by Pet Haven. Hazel is a Hurricane Katrina dog and, two years later, is still waiting to find her forever home. I can't tell you how badly I hope that this painting will help her get adopted. The painting captured such a look of yearning. She splinters my whole being into a million pieces.

Then there's Peanut. I have to admit that I love the way Peanut and Hazel bring balance to one another. In painting Peanut's portrait I was overcome by a feeling of sheer joy and exuberance. I mean, just look at her! Peanut was rescued from a hoarding situation where she was neglected and starving.

And this is what I love about rescued dogs: their resilience.

My heart can break open a million times during the course of the day, but it always comes back to hope, to love and, yes, to resilience. All I know is that I am profoundly grateful to be doing this work. These days I have been painting from the time I get up until the time I go to bed. Despite the exhaustion it produces, I would not give this up for anything.

In my studio, I have what I call the "Wall of Dogs." It is where I put all the photographs of the dogs I've painted. The wall is full. But not nearly as full as my heart.

Next week I will be moving into a new studio space. Oh, sweet anticipation! It's a good thing because, currently, I am bursting out of the seams of the space I'm in now. I'm looking forward to the extra space for many reasons...and with it will come an even bigger "Wall of Dogs." My only question is: how many dogs can one heart hold? I have a feeling that the answer to that is: a lot.

Save the Date: Opening Reception
RESCUED: Dogs of Pet Haven
Where: Cuppa Java, 400 Penn Ave S. Minneapolis, MN 55405
When: Thursday, November 13th, 7:30 pm
(show will run for the month of November.)


Meet Koda

I have just put the finishing touches on a portrait of a dog named Koda. Although I've never met this dog, I've fallen in love with him. I tend to fall in love with dogs in the act of painting them--but I think I've fallen a little harder for this beautiful spirit because he reminds me of my wolfie, Anu. There is a sense of softness about him that is counterbalanced by those piercing eyes--gentle, yet keenly aware.

I began this portrait last week while up north on a week long painting retreat. As I painted, I looked often at Anu...studying where the black of her mouth meets the white of her chin, analyzing the marks around her eyes, deciphering the contours of her face and body in in terms of light and shadow, expression and mood. I could see age settling in on her and it broke my heart. But I also saw how age has brought us to know each other and has endowed her with a different way of seeing--less fierce, more wise.

Koda reminds me of Anu's younger self. He reminds me of winter. Somehow, he reminds me of my past. He causes me to feel tender and intense, all at once.

The thing I love most about painting dogs is that there are never two paintings even remotely alike. Koda has been up for adoption for a long time now. One would think that a beautiful dog like him would get snatched up in a heart beat--but it often amazes me how long it sometimes takes for even the best dogs to get adopted. Luckily, Koda is in good hands and, even as I write this, he is nestling himself into the hearts of his foster family. He is being well taken care of. And yet it breaks my heart to think of all the dogs that are simply put to sleep for lack of better options. Koda was left behind in an abandoned house and was only found when it was discovered that the pipes had burst. Koda was rescued--which makes him one of the lucky ones.

Today I brought my husband, Vinny, to see the new studio space for the first time--oh, and it is such an incredible space! Since I won't move in until November, the best we could do was peek in the windows. On our way there we passed the city pound. Vinny told me that, while he was there to get licenses for the dogs, he noticed two big books on the counter. One filled with photos of dogs being kept in the shelter...and another one filled with all the dogs that have been euthanized. It stuns me to think of the many beautiful beings that this happens to every minute of every day. Then I think of all the people working to make a difference--one dog at a time--and I see how it matters.

These days my studio at home is filled with dogs. I love walking in and seeing their faces shining from one canvas after another. At the moment I am up to my elbows in paint as I prepare for an exhibition of Pet Haven rescue dogs that I will hang in 2 weeks. Some of the dogs have already been adopted and some of them are still waiting to find their forever home. But every dog comes with a story--a story that I hope to capture, even if in some small way.

I hope that this show will help some of these dogs get noticed. What if every dog I painted got adopted? I wish for that. I hope for that. Lately, I find myself hoping for a lot of things. I like the way hope feels--even if it brings tears to my eyes on a regular basis. My heart feels rubbed raw and as though it is ready to burst. I admit that I think I even like the way this rawness feels. However uncomfortable, it makes me feel alive. It connects me. It breaks me open.

A big thank you to Minneapolis photographer, Jessica Hackner of Half Light Photo, for sharing
her photographs of Koda. There's nothing better than painting from a beautiful photograph!


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