SFMOMA Became a Pet Portrait Studio for a Day

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Portraits in a variety of styles from cartoonish to realistic of two cats, three dogs, a rat and a snake.
Pet portraits courtesy of: (top row L-R) Kate Rhoades, Justin Marshall, Kristina Micotti and (bottom row L-R) Isa Beniston, Vivian Tong and Elaine Chu. (Rae Alexandra)

It was a fairly surreal sight: 50 artists (plus a group of children, aged 11 and younger) seated side-by-side at long tables dotted around the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, immortalizing other people’s pets. Welcome to Pet Portraits Day, an event designed to celebrate animals, art and the museum’s current Joan Brown exhibit.

Artists in attendance on Saturday, Feb. 4 included some of the Bay Area’s most distinctive local talent, including the likes of Christopher Martin, Kate Rhoades and Gina Contreras. Each of them was given the goal of finishing four separate portraits in six hours. Though the majority of participating artists stuck to drawing and painting the pets, some dabbled in collage, sculpture and, in the case of Isa Beniston of gentle thrills (a colorful accessories and homewares company), T-shirt airbrushing. The unusual format gave Beniston the opportunity to paint the animals more realistically than fans of gentle thrills might have expected.

“I could’ve done drawings of my usual goofy animals,” she told KQED from her station on the second floor, “but this is a weird niche part of my practice that I’ve been doing for years. I can airbrush these pet portraits from a photo in a way that is a bit more realistic. I mean when am I ever going to be asked back to do something like this? I can draw any time! This felt more special.”

A woman with brown hair tied back in a ponytail leans in close to a white T-shirt that she's airbrushing with an image of a dog.
Isa Beniston of gentle thrills airbrushes a pet portrait onto a white T-shirt. (Rae Alexandra)

Beniston, like the other artists at Pet Portrait Day, handpicked the pets she wanted to celebrate after SFMOMA visitors submitted photos of their floofs on arrival at the museum that morning. So how did the artist choose her subjects from so many cute pets?

“Expression,” Beniston said. “The more goofy the face is, or saggy and wrinkly the face is, that’s the most fun to airbrush. When you’re looking at a bulldog with face wrinkles and saggy jowls, there’s just more to work with.”

Portraits of 3 dogs, a cat, an iguana and a guinea pig.
Pet portraits by (top row L-R): Alan Miknis, Christopher Martin, Minnie Phan, and (bottom row L-R) Jessalyn Aaland, Kate Rhoades and Elaine Chu. (Rae Alexandra)

Another artist who opted to stretch beyond the medium she’s best known for was Oakland-based muralist Kristi Holohan. When I found her on SFMOMA’s fourth floor, Holohan was painting details onto a soft sculpture of an upright-standing dog. Given the time-intensive format she was using, I asked how on earth Holohan was stitching so quickly.


“I love sewing,” Holohan said. “For me it’s kind of like second nature. I prepped two of the bodies last night, which took me about four hours.” The heads of the pets were designed and sewn on the day of the event.

“It’s a little absurd, but it’s also adorable,” she said, examining the dog in her hand. “Oftentimes sewing is seen simply as a woman’s work. For me, it’s much more than that. Putting it in the SFMOMA validates it as a beautiful art form. That’s one of the reasons I chose to do sewing today.”

“A lot of my work focuses on connecting people with nature,” Holohan continued. “[My goal is to] make something really cute so people can build a psychological connection to what we’re looking at. I like to make things cutesy that also inspire awe and wonder.”

A woman with shoulder length brown hair sits at a table holding up a soft toy in the shape of a standing dog. She is smiling and holding up a tiny collar.
Kristi Holohan with her dog soft sculpture. (Rae Alexandra)

Two rows in front of Holohan, I encountered San Francisco photographer and artist Justin Marshall painting the pet that I had submitted that morning — my rat, Daisy. Beaming with pride, I asked Marshall why he’d picked her.

“I picked Daisy for a few reasons,” Marshall told me. “I really like the idea of a diverse group of animals being represented. My daughter wants to get a dog, but we don’t have room for a dog, so we’ve had frogs, we had snails for a while... Small critters make sense, so this rat just seems like a very San Francisco pet.”

The wall of pet portraits as seen on the SFMOMA’s fourth floor on Sunday, Feb. 6, 2023. (Rae Alexandra)

The pet portraits will be displayed on the museum’s fourth floor until the end of Monday, Feb. 6. After that, most will be sent out to the lucky pet owners whose fur babies were turned into art. Select pet portraits will continue to be displayed in the museum’s STEPS cafe through June 7.

I, for one, will be framing mine and then quietly hoping Pet Portraits Day turns into an annual event.