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For 30 years, artist Brian Frink specialized in "gestural abstraction," a contemporary style emphasizing energetic slashes and smears of paint. His work has earned him two McKnight artist fellowships, several grants from the Minnesota State Arts Board, and a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts.
And then he painted a portrait of a dog.
Much to his surprise, Frink, an art professor at Minnesota State University, Mankato, found he enjoyed painting cats and dogs. It challenged him. It defied the expectations of his fellow artists. Perhaps less surprising, clients were crazy about the finished products. All that positive feedback got Frink thinking: "Maybe I should try this to make some money, because my other stuff wasn't selling."
Frink is one of several fine artists-turned-commercial-pet portraitists around the Twin Cities. Some of these painters are unconflicted about their furry pursuits, while others are reluctant purveyors of what has become a lucrative genre.
Whatever the take, fans of their pet portraits are begging for more.
Ben Joerg was devastated when his English springer spaniel died in 2007.
"For me, having a dog is like having a child," the Minneapolis resident said. "I just absolutely love dogs."
He longed for a permanent memorial to his dog. So he did something extreme: Joerg hired Jessie Marianiello, a popular local artist, to paint a 20- by 30-inch portrait of his new pup, another English springer spaniel named Azeda.
"I think I paid $1,200 for it," Joerg said. "But seriously, it's the coolest purchase I've ever made."
Thanks to animal lovers like Joerg, Minneapolis-based Marianiello has flourished as a full-time pet portraitist since 2008. Marianiello specializes in lush paintings of cats, dogs, even horses.
"I have a contemporary style but it's very important that I capture the spirit of the animal," explains the 37-year-old artist. Her work is reliably playful and expressive. Most often, Marianiello focuses on the soulfulness of the animal's eyes.
Marianiello is painting animals at the perfect cultural moment. Customers like Joerg are lavishing their four-legged friends with love and affection.
"Business is going phenomenally," confirms Marianiello. "For every one commission, I seem to get two more."
Painting from photographs
Also based in Minneapolis, Sarah Thornton offers a less orthodox take on the burgeoning genre of pet portraiture. With their bright contrasting colors, Thornton's oil paintings and colored pencil drawings take inspiration from marquetry, a mosaic-like woodworking technique she learned from her father.
"I try to find shapes and planes in the facial structure," says the twenty-something artist, who has also been painting animals since 2008. She caters to doting dog owners (and a few cat lovers) with constructions of purple shadows and sky-blue highlights.
Logistically, the subjects can be a bit, ah, unpredictable, so the painters primarily work from photographs. Marianiello and Thornton say they like to meet the animals, if possible. The portraits take anywhere from 10 to 40 hours or more. The commissioning process can stretch as long as a year.
Marianiello and Thornton belong to a certain camp of pet portraitists: Both arrived to pet portraiture early in their careers, with limited exposure to the establishment arts scene. Both have housefuls of pets -- four dogs for Thornton, three dogs and a cat for Marianiello. Both volunteer for organizations like the Animal Humane Society and Minnesota Pit Bull Rescue.
"We're doing what we do because we care about animals," insists Marianiello. "What a beautiful way to spend your energy -- and to support yourself."
Other artists are wary of painting pets. Minneapolis-based Jennifer Davis already enjoyed a local following, plus the patronage of galleries throughout the country. Then she stumbled upon pet portraiture. Her first portrait was made to cheer up a friend with a sick dog. As word got out, Davis became swamped with commissions. But no more pet portraits for her. As Davis explained in an e-mail, she needs to refocus on gallery work in 2012.
As for Frink, he knows what his sophisticated friends think of pet portraiture: "It's the opposite of what you should do as a serious artist. It's genre painting. It's cheesy."
The 55-year-old's first pet painting was a favor to his daughter, who requested a tribute to her father-in-law's recently deceased pet. Frink never met the pooch in question. "So I worked straight from a photograph," he said. The finished product looked nothing like the loose and whimsical stylings of Frink's usual work. It was more realistic and formal, painstaking in its physical detail.
Frink has felt somewhat shunned in artist circles, particularly on Facebook, since he started painting cats and dogs. Some of his students even branded him a "sellout."
On the upside, the pet portraits helped Frink forge a new, more emotional bond with his customers. For the first time, the mid-career artist saw his work inspire the most powerful of human responses. As Frink explains it, pet owners "would actually cry when they saw the paintings. I never had anyone cry in front of my paintings before."