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Artists create pet portraits to raise money for longtime Sonoma Valley animal shelter

Sonoma artist Barbara White Perry is known for her detailed ink drawings of historic Valley of the Moon locales and her vivid oil paintings inspired by local landscapes. Lately, though, her attention is focused on the beloved pets starring in a creative fundraising campaign for Pets Lifeline, Sonoma Valley’s longtime animal shelter.

She is among 149 artists of all ages and skill levels donating their time and talents to create pet portraits from photographs submitted to Pets Lifeline along with donations of $20 or more to help the nonprofit during the coronavirus shutdown.

The fundraiser launched in March, shortly after Sonoma County’s initial mandates to help slow the transmission of COVID-19. “People just absolutely jumped on it,” said Nancy King, the shelter’s executive director. “It’s been so much fun.”

So far the shelter has received nearly 300 commissions, raising almost $9,000 for general expenses. It’s a considerable amount during a period when scheduled fundraising events were either canceled or modified online because of pandemic restrictions on public gatherings. The shelter has been closed since March, with a limited number of adoptions possible. Additionally, Pets Lifeline is housed in temporary facilities as construction of a new, long-anticipated $3.4 million animal resource center is underway.

The Pet Portraits project has been “kind of an escape” during shelter-in-place, White Perry said. “I’m so immersed in the portraits that it’s an escape from all the stuff going on in the world. It’s really uplifting.”

She’s completed nine portraits so far, including a drawing of a dog named Coco created with pencil, ink, pastels and vine charcoal, a material made from burnt grape vines. Other works feature acrylics, oils and watercolors - portraits lovingly created for those who consider their pets important members of the family.

“They know they’re doing this for someone else who deeply loves their pet,” King said. “Pets are a part of our life. It’s really a family portrait.”

Boyes Hot Springs artist Barbara Mannle was among the first volunteers to lend her talents to the campaign. Like White Perry, she has adopted from Pets Lifeline and was more than happy to help with the fundraiser.

“I thought it was such a brilliant idea,” said Mannle, who owned and operated the local Gingerbread House preschool and child care center for 43 years before retiring. “I was really happy to be able to give something. I thought I could do that. Here I am at home.”

Mannle doesn’t consider herself a professional artist. She’s taken art classes through the Santa Rosa Junior College Older Adults Program and has displayed her watercolors in a few shows, but she’s never been interested in selling her artwork. The Pet Portraits project, she said, is an ideal way to share her work.

Mannle has completed four paintings, striving to capture an expression or nuance from each pet photo she received. For one, of a mostly black cat with a deep gaze, she made four or five renderings before she was content with the portrait.

White Perry also is exacting. Although one portrait took her about three hours, others require much more time to complete. She studies the submitted photos (some with notes about the pets) to determine personalities or “get to know” the pet she’s highlighting.

Although most commissions are of dogs and cats, Pets Lifeline welcomes all kinds of animal portraits. Commissions include a parrot, several horses and a sheep. A chicken was in one portrait with a dog, and volunteer artists await any other beloved pets, from frogs and fish to reptiles.

For animal lovers like Michael Piacentini of Agua Caliente, the portraits are a meaningful opportunity to remember beloved pets. He submitted a photo of his 13-year-old dog, Gelida, or Geli, a Catalonian sheepdog he adopted as a puppy in Spain after discovering the breed during an earlier vacation there.

He and his husband, Brian Brockway, adored both Gelida and their other dog, Izzy, another Catalonian sheepdog who was Gelida’s aunt. Gelida was stricken with a rare disease and died after Piacentini sent Pets Lifeline her photo.

“I was not really thinking it was going to be a memorial,” Piacentini said. “I sent it in before she passed and got it back after she had passed.” The touching portrait of the couple’s beloved dog, with her soulful eyes and shaggy coat, was created by Debbie Tancik, “absolutely beautifully done,” Piacentini said.

He and Brockway have since commissioned three portraits featuring Gelida and Izzy, who passed away earlier at age 15. Each is by a different artist.

Those who commission portraits are randomly paired with artists; it could be a grade schooler who loves drawing or a professional artist like White Perry, who was Sonoma’s honorary Treasure Artist for 2015 and is the author/illustrator of “Drawing Sonoma,” with a second edition in print.

White Perry is so supportive of the campaign that she completed a portrait of her late dog and made a donation for her own work. She considers the fundraiser “great for everybody.”

The program is modeled after a similar project at the Wisconsin Humane Society. “Really we were thinking about it in terms of children (as artists),” King said. Although organizers collaborated with art students at Sonoma Valley High School as well as younger kids, adult artists quickly came on board.

“We’ve had so many adult artists that now the expectations are so high,” King said.

The artists are given one rule: to have fun. Each can interpret “portrait” as they like, said Mary Catherine Cutcliffe, community outreach and communications coordinator with Pets Lifeline. One, Paula Marie Pang, made a stuffed dog of felted wool depicting Chewbacca, a handsome canine with his tongue hanging out; Annette Goodfriend handcrafted a COVID-19-themed ceramic mug with a spot-on likeness of a wide-eyed black cat named Eyk.

Jill Valavanis created a fabric collage of two tuxedo cats with free-motion machine embroidery, while her husband, Jim, designed a dog portrait using Posca paint markers. Their 21-year-old daughter, Adie, a student at Detroit’s College for Creative Studies, made a digital painting of a dog hand-drawn with an Apple pencil.

Cutcliffe, who is overseeing the fundraiser, has been inspired by the numerous donations, artistic contributions and touching stories she’s heard about the bond between people and their pets, including many dogs and cats adopted through Pets Lifeline. Many commissions are memorials to pets “who have crossed over the rainbow bridge,” she said.

“I’ve gone through these emotional journeys with people through this experience. It’s been a light in a dark time,” Cutcliffe said. “It’s just filling my heart with all these stories.”

Through word of mouth, the campaign has spread beyond Sonoma Valley, from the Pacific Northwest to the East Coast, where King’s 5-year-old niece, Marin King, accepted a commission. Artist Tim Miller of Tacoma, Washington, heard about the program through contacts around Sonoma Valley and contributed two humorous illustrations of tabbies.

“Trying to sense or imagine the personality of animals is fun for me,” he wrote in an email. “With the (submitted) photo and some small details, I was able to get to know the character of the cats and highlight those traits.”

Requesting a commission for a minimum $20 donation “seems like such a little gesture,” Piacentini said. The return, though, is huge. The portraits “really are incredibly meaningful.”

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