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The Most Loyal Subject
by McKenzie Graham
One artist is taking his sorrow for abandoned animals to canvas, teaching compassion one portrait at a time. This article is from Magazine (April 2014). To subscribe, click here.
If there’s a universal rule for creating a grade school history textbook, it must be to pepper each chapter with royal family portraits from the 16th century, giving faces to the long gone (and long obsolete in the minds of most young readers). One common and interesting presence in these portraits is that of family pets, mostly dogs. While this was, more often than not, less a sign of their owners’ affection than a symbol of man’s dominance over beasts, the shared experience of pet ownership in our time would have it the other way around. After all, here we are hundreds of years later, still making portraits not only with dogs but also of them exclusively. In fact, one artist in Louisville, Kentucky, is making 5,500 of them.
Mark Barone lost his canine companion, Santina, after 21 years of friendship. When his partner, Marina Dervan, began looking for another dog to adopt, she was struck with the startling reality of animal shelters and the millions of animals euthanized each year, mainly because of space restrictions and lack of funding. “Marina kept sending me graphic images and statistics until I decided to really let them in,” says Barone. “Thus started an intense dialogue between us about solutions, and within two days I awoke to a vision of the way I could use art for social change and bring attention to the problem and the no-kill solution.”
From that conversation Barone and Dervan began “An Act of Dog,” a nonprofit awareness campaign for which Barone is creating 5,500 portraits of the animals that didn’t make the cut. That number is significant because it’s the one he and Dervan came to upon investigating how many dogs must be put to sleep every day. “I have to connect with these animals in a very deep way and try to express the individual souls that were needlessly killed,” says Barone. “I’ve always been very connected to animals, and I draw on that as I relate to each dog. There are days when the task seems daunting, and it affects me emotionally and spiritually.”
Barone recounts the story of Oreo, a pit bull famously thrown off a six-story building in Brooklyn. After a miraculous physical recovery with help from the ASPCA, former CEO and president Ed Sayres deemed Oreo too aggressive to rehabilitate and, sadly, she was killed. There was a great deal of public outcry at the decision, and Barone sites examples of successful rehabilitations, including all but two of the surviving dogs from infamous football player and dog fighting ringleader Michael Vick. Most of them are now working as service dogs.
Barone believes in this cause and is eager to donate his talent, as he has for the past two years, but he’s had to donate more than that. “I had to cash in my retirement savings for this project,” he says. Thankfully, he and Dervan have also had some help along the way. Golden Artist Colors has donated the gesso for all 5,500 portraits, and the artists have been using subsidized studios and living spaces, courtesy of John Clark, the owner of Mellwood Art Center in Louisville, Kentucky. Once they realized they would have to move (their hometown, Santa Fe, was the only one of 32 cities that didn’t offer to subsidize a production space), Clark offered his help and they took it. Their next step is to find a philanthropic partner to house the paintings in a kind of permanent memorial museum. “We’re looking for the right partner to help us, so we can create what will be the first memorial museum of its kind in the world,” says Barone. “It’s been a very long journey so far, but I feel the project, once completed, will be powerful and inspire change.”
Visit www.anactofdog.org for updates on the project.
Mckenzie Graham is the associate editor of Magazine and a graduate of Miami University (Oxford, Ohio).