I’m a bit obsessive and somewhat of a maniac when it comes to taking pictures of my Wheaten Terrier, Wendell. And although I have a mammoth photo album of his entire life (he’s almost two) which I thrust into the hands of anyone who happens to step foot in our apartment, I’m still proud to say that I’m not the type of crazy dog owner who has hundreds of framed pictures of their dog all over their apartment. In fact, I only have one puppy picture on my desk (honestly, I have two pictures, but Wendell was a really cute puppy). I have the few requisite action shots on the fridge, and I carry a Kate Spade leather travel picture frame in my purse (to thrust into the hands of those who won’t have the luxury of getting to see his entire album), but that’s about it. Okay, okay, I have a picture on my dresser, too, but who’s counting?
The point is that even though I get the pleasure of having the real thing actually trotting about the house all day, I somehow wanted something more of a larger testament to show not only how important he was in my life, but also how truly special he really is. I wanted something that people would see and think, “Wow, what a dog!” or “Wow, this is a woman who truly appreciates her dog!”. Something refined, that wasn’t too over the top, so that a person leaving my apartment, barely walking down the stairs, and exiting my building, wouldn’t burst out laughing at my expense.
“So, what you’re basically saying is that you want a shrine to our dog, is that what I’m hearing?” Cosmas, my husband said, from behind the protection of the business section of the New York Times. He was half joking, but I detected a hint of jealousy.
I rolled my eyes even though he couldn’t see me, “No one said anything about a shrine, I’m talking about something more along the lines of a…” I paused looking for the right word.
“A memento?” He peeked over the paper and smiled.
“No, but close. I was thinking more along the lines of monumental. Yes, a monument to Wendell. I know, what about a bust? Do people still get busts made? Or better yet, why not a portrait!”
Yes, a portrait would be perfect. Something modern, yet classic, something bold, but not stuffy (because Wendell is not a stuffy dog), something warm, yet not overly cutesy. Now of course, I’d have to find someone to paint him, and not just anybody. What I needed was someone who was not the typical pet painter type (not that I knew what that type was exactly, but I assumed it was probably along the lines of little old lady who enjoys taking adult education art classes). No, I needed someone who was a real hard-core artist, someone angry and temperamental, who could find relief from the demons in their head by painting a portrait of Wendell.
I found a flier in a small gallery on Newbury Street that showcased the paintings of new artists in the Boston area. The flier showed three different paintings of dogs with a simple heading of “Paintings by Petersen Thomas” and at the bottom it simply said, “To commission a portrait of your pet please contact…” I very casually picked one up and stared at it, not quite able to believe my good fortune, but my excitement grew as I studied his work. One painting in particular was particularly fabulous; it featured a black lab holding a bright green chew toy in its mouth, against a shocking pink background. It was bold, visually arresting, and modern.
I was with my friend Kyle at the time. “Whatcha got there?” He asked. At first I was reluctant to show it to him, because I doubted that he’d consider a pet painting to be high-art. But then again, I thought I needed to get a second opinion of whether this painter had any talent.
Kyle studied it for a while and soon nodded his approval, but he warned me that portraits were tricky, because when it came right down to it, having someone capture the ‘essence’ of a person, or in this case, a dog, is incredibly difficult, because beauty was subjective. I carefully tucked the flier in my purse and didn’t respond to Kyle, because maybe beauty was subjective, but Wendell’s looks were not.
I’m not exactly sure why I was nervous to call the number on the flier, but I was.
Finally, I called. The voice that answered was surprisingly deep and robust, and fairly normal. I was half expecting to hear the torturous artist’s lament in his voice. Painters in movies are always brooding. I figured this was just an acquired attitude that they developed from years of sitting in small coffee shops with other struggling artists, nursing the one cup of coffee they could afford at the moment, and discussing their woes. But perhaps that pinched and sullen look on their faces was from years of smelling oil paints and turpentine.
So I explained to him how I found his flier, how I loved the pink Labrador painting, and that I was interested in speaking with him about a possible portrait of my dog, Wendell. I asked him how the ‘process’ worked – meaning did he expect Wendell to sit for him, how much it cost, and whether or not I had any say so in the whole process. I was a little awkward on the phone, because of course I didn’t want to step on his painter toes by being a neurotic and demanding client, but at the same time I already had a sense of what I wanted. I was wondering the politically correct way to ask whether he’d be willing to set aside his artistic integrity for the whims of a slightly neurotic dog owner. I assumed he was used to such questions, because he obviously had painted a bunch of dogs already. The type of dog owners that would actually commission a portrait of their dog, all had to be somewhat similar in personality. Meaning, dog owners that commission a portrait had to be a bit obsessive with their dog.
He took all my questions in stride, and told me that he painted from pictures, but that he did like to meet with the dogs as well. This made me feel immediately comfortable. What real painter didn’t want to meet his subject? Even though I had some really amazing pictures of Wendell (he’s quite photogenic), I was skeptical about whether an artist could capture his true essence – his intelligence, spirit, charm and independence – without meeting him first.
After we set up a meeting at the Boston Common for the following week, I finally had enough nerve to ask him over the phone what I really wanted to know. “So, uh, I, uh…” I was always so eloquent when nervous, “I was wondering how open you were to, say, well, you know, um… direction from your clients.”
He paused, probably steeling himself for yet another inane question from a non-arty person, and then he spoke in direct, but polite voice, “I don’t quite know what you mean?”
Well at least he was perceptive, because obviously I didn’t either. I tried again, “It’s just that I know you’re an artist, and I’m sure you might not be thrilled to have someone tell you how to paint, not that I would ever tell you how to not paint. What I’m trying to say is that I don’t have an exact picture of Wendell that I like, and I wanted to know whether you’d be able to sort of improvise a little? I have an idea of what I’d like and I was wondering whether you’d be open to hearing a suggestion without offending you? Wendell would be a muse for anyone, but…”
Petersen took pity and interrupted me, “Well, if you’re asking me whether or not I’d be open to suggestions when it came to the dog portraits? Absolutely. Some of my clients in the past have asked for a specific background color, or asked that I change the color of the couch so it would better match their living room. That’s no problem. Right now I’m doing pet portraits besides my other painting. When it comes to other work, no, I wouldn’t really be interested in direction. So, what do you have in mind?”
I was curious about what he was thinking I was going to ask and quickly ended his suspense, “I was hoping that you might consider doing Wendell’s portrait in a similar style of Picasso’s blue period.”
I continued talking fast with excitement because the thought of it really did make me giddy with delight, I mean how fabulous would that look?! “I don’t mean to say you can’t add in your own style, whatever that may be, but after you see Wendell, I think you’ll agree that he’s really worthy of something along those lines. He has such a gorgeous coat that is actually made up of varying colors of white, blonde, red and black, the combination gives him his wheaten color.”
More silence. Finally, he spoke, his voice pretty soft now, “Are you serious?”
“I am. I just have this picture in my head of it, and I think it’d be amazing. But of course when I say Picasso, I’m not really wanting Wendell to look depressed, or too serious, and not to mix Picasso periods, I’m definitely not interested in any subtle cubist context – no noses or guitars or misshapen heads.”
Now it was Petersen’s turn to stammer a bit. “I, uh, well sure. I mean, I’d be willing to try it out. I actually think I’m pretty good with figuring out the styles of the greats. It’d certainly be an interesting project. Very, uh…”
“Modern, bold, daring?” I piped in, trying to be helpful. “What I’m really looking for is something that is sort of, oh, you know – monumental.”
“Absolutely,” was his response. I sat and wondered whether it was absolutely true that artist types take risks and are all about monumental moments and lasting impressions.
And so the process began.
When I received Petersen’s call a two weeks later asking whether I had time to come over to see his ‘first draft’, I immediately agreed to come over that very day. When I hung up the phone I found myself suddenly nervous. What if I hated it? What if it looked nothing like Wendell? What if he totally didn’t ‘get’ Wendell’s essence? Was I crazy to have even suggested the whole ‘blue’ thing in the first place? Maybe, Wendell wasn’t the ‘blue period’ type, after all didn’t I always put him in red collars.
I thought back to the day before Petersen first met Wendell, how I spent the entire afternoon in the library pouring over art books just to make sure there wasn’t another ‘style’ that might better represent Wendell’s look. I covered all the bases – Degas (too many ballerinas, Wendell was very masculine), Chagall (too whimsical), Mirot (too many straight lines, Wendell’s hair was wavy), Monet (too soft), Dali (too melty bizarre), Munch (too alarmist), Renoir (too cliché), Lichenstein (too many dots), Basquait (too gritty), Warhol (too overdone), Pollack (too messy), O’Keefe (too vaginal), Kahlo (too many skulls and I still don’t get the unibrow thing), but in the end I realized that I had made the right selection in the beginning with Picasso!
Petersen’s studio was in his apartment, which happened to be at the very top of Beacon Hill in Boston. As I trudged up the hill I tried to get into the right frame of mind. I reminded myself that no matter how it turned out, especially if I didn’t like it, that I needed to maintain my composure.
When he walked me into his studio, I was holding my breath. When I saw the painting, I gasped. It was even better than the one I had imagined, and I loved it immediately. But there was one slight problem – Wendell’s face. Though there was no doubt that it was a Wheaten Terrier, I have to say that the face was just a tiny bit off from Wendell’s. The dog in the portrait could have been a relative of his. Petersen could tell that something was amiss and explained again that this was just the first draft. The whole point of doing the painting in two stages was that it would give me a chance to make changes. That was all the encouragement I needed, and soon I was standing behind him as he worked directly on the painting – eyes a little further apart, hair a little more tousled (think lone breeze in desert), the hair around his mouth was probably a bit darker, and his face was a little too long. After only a few minutes of brush strokes, suddenly the painting was transformed (before my very eyes), into my darling, Wendell. With my hand over my mouth, I whispered, “That’s it. That’s Wendell.”
I picked up the final a week later, and it was even better than before. Petersen created an amazing dog portrait for me. The painting was everything I had hoped – a monument, a piece of art, and it looked just like Wendell, but in blue.
Jenny Lee is the author of I Do. I Did. Now What?! Life After the Wedding Dress (Workman Publishing) and is currently working on her next book (about you guessed it, her dog Wendell) which will be published in 2004 by Bantam Dell.