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Sonoma artist surprises friends, neighbors with dog portraits

Sig Rundström isn’t exactly sly, but he certainly knows how to keep a secret. He spent the first year of the coronavirus pandemic painting dog portraits, then surprising unsuspecting dog owners with artwork of their beloved canines.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, The Sonoma Valley artist — who also goes by his middle name, William, or Bill — had been casually snapping cellphone photos of dogs he’d met on his daily walks with his greyhound, Jet.

“I just love dogs,” said Rundström, 80. He hadn’t planned to do a series of dog portraits, but found comfort in painting as the pandemic unfolded from the earliest days of shelter-in-place mandates. In 2020, he completed at least 80 paintings of all sizes (landscapes to abstracts), as well as 45 dog portraits, of various media and techniques. It was his most productive year to date.

“The thing about it is, I can’t believe I did all these in this time period,” he said. Working primarily from a studio in his garage, “I was putting them out like mad.”

When Jet, who was rescued from a racetrack in Tijuana, died from a sudden illness just before the onset of the pandemic, Rundström began painting day and night as a way of working through his grief. “I was really devastated,” he said. The loss of Jet, along with the rapidly developing tragedy of the pandemic, “really got me painting obsessively.”

When neighborhood friend and fellow artist Paul Ford commented that Rundström was an “art dog” because of his productivity and variety of artwork, it sparked an idea. In April, Rundström began painting portraits from the photos of dogs he’d met while walking the trails and sidewalks around Creekside Village, a retirement community where he lives with his wife of 54 years, Charlene, and their recently adopted rescue whippet, Maggie.

“It was just a real hard time for me, between Jet and the pandemic,” he said. Painting became a form of therapy. “It saved me. It really did.”

Most of the dogs in Rundström’s “Art Dog” series are likenesses of those from his neighborhood and nearby retirement communities. A few were requested for friends or relatives in Hawaii, Missouri and Vancouver, British Columbia.

Several are of Jet, Maggie and other dogs the Rundströms have owned, nine in all, from a Great Dane named Princess Daisy to a Chihuahua called Zoie. “They’re all different, but every dog we’ve had has been a wonderful dog.”

The portraits include a few of an imaginary dog Rundström dubbed “Mr. Mojo,” pulled from that creative place he calls the “mojo” where artists are “in the groove,” he said. “It was like somebody else was painting.”

The challenge of the “Art Dog” series wasn’t creating the artwork – it was finding the dog owners to present with the surprise portraits.

“Most I knew on the trails and eventually I’d find them all,” he said. For a few others, the timing was off and he “never ran into them.” It took Rundström up to six weeks to locate some of the dog owners, but he succeeded.

“I knew most of the dogs’ names, but not the owners’,” he said. “The biggest thing was they were so surprised when they got them. They didn’t know I had these paintings.”

One recipient, he said, was speechless, overcome with emotion when she saw the portrait of her border collie, Ruben.

Rundström was always rewarded with gratitude and compliments for his talent and kindness. Paul Ford and his wife, Gail, so deeply appreciated the portrait of their miniature goldendoodle, Marcel, and the thoughtfulness and time Rundström put into his series that they presented him with a medal proclaiming, “Art Dog’s Public Service Award, Sig Rundström.”

Some dog owners insisted on paying him for the surprise portraits, with Rundström agreeing to accept gift cards to a local art supply store. He didn’t set out to make a profit from his series. The process, he said, was payment enough.

He painted numerous breeds in various poses: headshots of some, full-body portraits of others. Dogs with names like Yogi, Lucy, Lulu, Brooklyn, Broccoli, Clyde, Kipper, Chewy and CoCo are captured in oils, inks, acrylics, watercolors and pastels, and in combined media, on panel board, paper, gessoed canvas, a preparation using plaster of Paris and glue, and raw linen.

One portrait of a beagle and his owner took a week to complete. “Some are quicker than others, and some are larger than others, too,” Rundström said.

For some, Rundström used techniques like applying paint with palette knives or employing a “scratchboard” process using a rigid surface topped with black paint. His other works during 2020 also feature a wide variety of mediums and applications. He’s currently working on a new “Sgraffito” series, still keeping busy with his artwork.

“I’m more of a contemporary artist, but I like abstract every so often,” he said. “I always like to try different things.”

Although he’s long enjoyed art, he didn’t fully dedicate himself to painting until after his retirement 15 years ago. He joined the Navy at 17, was trained in drafting, served on carriers and after his discharge at 21, worked in drafting and technical illustration. For a time, he also painted massive aircraft hangars.

In later years, Rundström earned a degree in social studies as well as a teaching credential and worked in real estate and appraising. After more than 20 years in Sebastopol, the Rundströms moved to Sonoma Valley in 1997.

He grew up in San Francisco, where he graduated from Sacred Heart Preparatory, and has lived in places including New York, Georgia and Washington state — always with a love of dogs and an interest in art. Although he’s primarily self-taught, he credits numerous artists with helping him develop his skills and techniques. He’s taken a variety of workshops at the Sonoma Community Center and has “read every book you can think of on painting,” he said. “I really work at it.”

He considers himself fortunate to have met so many dogs — and the people walking them. “Dog people are a whole different breed. There’s just something about them.”

Rundström has a Shutterfly book with 35 of his dog portraits. The cover features a photo of him and his beloved Jet, their heads side by side, blue skies and trees in the background. The pair enjoyed countless walks (twice daily) during their nearly three years together.

The “Art Dog” series helped Rundström through the difficult days of the pandemic and the death of his dog, while also bringing joy to surprised dog owners throughout his neighborhood.

“This was a tremendous release,” he said. “It was a tremendous gift to do this.”

For more information, visit Rundström’s website, sigrundstrom.com.

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