By Ashley Schwellenbach
A dog is a bridge between two strangers,” mixed media artist Sarah Winkler quoted John Steinbeck, adding an observation of her own: “Since I owned Pugsley I’ve met all my neighbors.”
Resident artists at Paso Robles’ Studios on the Park are banking on their current exhibit, “Raining Cats and Dogs,” to expand their circle of friends and fans. The 40 or so pet portraits—ranging from traditional to downright delightfully bizarre—introduce a coterie of whiskered, four-legged, and betailed characters, Winkler’s transcendental pug among them. Joining Pugsley on canvas, or ceramics, are an outraged cat whose food bowl is empty, a water-happy Labrador named Max and a basset hound named Bailey spooning with an English springer spaniel named Sarah.
“You’d think it would be kind of hokey but it’s not,” said Anne Laddon, of the exhibit, which runs through April 11. Laddon is one of the resident artists at Studios on the Park, sharing a window-front space overlooking the city’s downtown park with fellow artist, silversmith Randy Stromsoe. She’s also the studio's founder, and the owner of the studio mascot Smudge, a Boston terrier with a bed behind the front desk. So it’s no surprise that she’s spent the past couple of months elbow-deep in photos of friends’ pets. The first piece she completed for the show, an oil painting, depicts a friend’s black lab swimming in their family pool.
Laddon is not typically a painter of pets, though she has recently created several cow paintings. But her style, which is realistic infused with vibrant, unexpected colors, is suited to a variety of subjects.
“I don’t stick to one theme,” she acknowledged. “There’s too much fun stuff to paint.” Next door to Laddon’s space studiomates Peg Grady and Winkler create portraits of animals with attitude. Winkler’s regal pug is depicted sitting atop a red lotus blossom cushion against a collaged Asian landscape. One scrap of paper, visible through the layers of paint and materials, reads “Buddha Rising: Out of the monastery, into the living room.”
“Pugs are old temple dogs. They used to be bred to be the Tibetan monks’ companions,” explained Winkler. “Everyone keeps saying pugs are crazy, but mine isn’t. He’s Buddha.”
Grady’s image of an amber-eyed cat glaring up at the viewer, the phrase MY FOOD BOWL IS EMPTY, stenciled in red caps beneath its feet, is considerably less peaceful. It captures the dark, shameful side of pet ownership, when the human begins to wonder whether they don’t own their pet; that it is, in fact, the other way around.
Painter Lorna Teixeira, who is not, in fact, a resident artist at the studios, explored the bizarre and endearing world of pet fetishes in two paintings, “Zoe’s Ball Fetish” and “Lucy’s Shoe Fetish.” The bull terriers are members of Teixeira’s family, and she originally created the paintings for her three kids. Teixeira paints from her head, based on her knowledge of the subject. She acknowledges that dog portraits aren’t necessarily consistent with her contemporary aesthetic, but embraces the challenge of melding the two.
“My bully lays next to me while I am at the studio so I can reference her markings and such but the expressions are my interpretations of her character. I know her so well, the funny way she sits, the way she hangs her head like its far too heavy to hold up, the look of guilt, excitement, her ears tell all. These dogs are very expressive and just plain odd looking which is why I own one and feel inspired to paint them.”
Though perhaps less equally represented, cats are not without their patron artists. Peg Grady, an abstract painter and assemblage artist, completed two paintings featuring a total of four cats, three of them raining from the sky and one of them confronting the viewer about a tragically empty food bowl. The latter piece was inspired by the prompt that Studios on the Park sent out to all the artists, to “capture the character of a favorite dog or the attitude of that neighbor’s cat.” Grady reasoned that her cat Mickey had attitude to spare so she photographed the feline performing her morning waiting to be fed ritual, which consists of glaring at Grady.
“As Mickey’s one of those cats who talks a lot, I included what I imagined her to be saying as she impatiently waits for me to fill her bowl,” explained Grady. “I wanted to create a true portrait of Mickey, not a generic cat painting, so while it was challenging, I know her well—she’s 15—so I was able to catch her body language and that gleam in her eye as she glares up at me at 6 a.m. She is definitely not a cute kitty, but, instead, a kick-ass cat. Perhaps this is a self-portrait?”
The only non-painters in the bunch—Peggy Vrana and Michael Miller of Earthsea Pottery, who share a park-view window studio with painter Henry Ramos—are giving fair play to both species. Over the years they’ve created pieces adorned with a host of animals including bears, deer, and humans, but domesticated pets are somewhat new to their repertoire.
The duo often works in tandem, Miller throwing and firing a piece and Vrana drawing the design, first in pencil, then with a wax resin layer. Since cats and dogs first began appearing on their bowls they’ve received a number of commissions from people wanting them to do portraits of the family pet. Their cat bowl is, in fact, based on a Cambrian cat named Angel, “a very furry cat,” according to Vrana. But the dogs are closer to home still. Vrana and Miller create bowls based on their own dogs, a basset hound named Bailey, an English springer spaniel named Sarah, and a cairn terrier named Tito who passed a few months ago. The husband and wife team take their pet pottery quite seriously.
“When you depict your family dog you’re doing a portrait of a loved one and you want to do them justice,” added Vrana.
Arts Editor Ashley Schwellenbach has never liked a person as well as she likes animals. Send Fancy Feast to firstname.lastname@example.org.