Everyone remembers their firsts. First day of school, fist date, first crush, first kiss, first job, first heartbreak, well, you get the idea.
I am telling the story of my first pet portrait, the one that started all of this. This, which as it seems is saving my sanity, my sense of self worth, and on some level I suppose my quality of life.
Animals have been my life as long as I can remember. As a child I interacted with any living creature be or insect, reptile or 4-legged. From the tiniest of bugs to the largest horse I was fascinated and felt they had their place on the planet. I bought a dead bat for fifty cents from a kid when I was 8-years-old, and I forgot it was in my pocket. My poor mom found it when she did laundry. We had racehorses pastured across the street from our house, and I used to sneak out late at night, climb the fence and ride them bareback holding onto their mane. No fear, and no obviously common sense.
I had horses most of my life. My first horse, Tuffy, was a red sorrel half Appaloosa and half thoroughbred. He was green broke and I paid $150 for him from the local horse farmer. I didn’t know what I was doing but somehow I trained him to be a gentle and bombproof trail horse.
Where am I going with all of this? I am leading to the story of my first pet portrait. It was February of 1998. I was living in a broken down old house in Stow, Maine with my eccentric but lovable friend and talented cartoonist Mark Heath. Google him if you wish, very talented man. I traveled often then as I was working as a hiking guide for New England Hiking Holidays and we had our annual Hawaii trip coming up. A month-long trip, and always a wonderful adventure, I was thrilled to have Mark at my house to watch over the creatures. I had plenty of them in those days. Mark was a self employed cartoonist an artist and a dear friend. My yellow lab Sophie had been a bit off health-wise prior to my departure and Mark was happy to take her to the vet for me in my absence. We had two trips on the Big Island, and in the three-day break between trips I received a call from my veterinarian. She went under anesthesia for exploratory surgery and nothing could be done to save her as it was too advanced and was affecting other organs. She was euthanized that day. I was in shock, devastated and overcome with grief. I was a mess. I wandered around Volcano National Park and the rain forest in tears feeling like the worst human in the world for leaving my dog behind, realizing I would never see her again, and that I never got to say goodbye.
In Hawaiian tradition I went deep into the forest and made an offering in honor and remembrance of Sophie. I had one of her bandanas with me and I gathered some coral and lava as well as some Koa wood, a candle and a Lehua blossom from the Ohi’a tree. With all of these treasures I made a shrine for Sophie. It made me feel a little better.
Our next hiking group arrived and they were a wonderful mix of people. Fun, caring and many were animal lovers. They helped me deal with the grief. We visited the offering site when we returned to Volcano the second week.
When I came home, Mark was there for support. Being an artist himself, he suggested I paint a picture of Sophie as a tribute and a memorial, and to make me feel better. So I did. It was a dreadful painting, or at least I thought so. Mark loved it. My friends loved it. They all asked if I would do one for them, so I did. My friend Mary Ann said I should do it for others and start charging money for them. I started charging mostly for the expenses and a little for the time, and I donated lots of gift certificates to animal non profits for auctions and raffles.
Sophie’s portrait hangs on the wall in my studio. Here is the cathartic artwork for all of you to see. Sophia, Sophie, Sophinia and dozens of other absurd names we came up with for a poor rescued puppy mill girl who was beautiful, smart and not with us nearly long enough. My first pet portrait.