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.
SFMOMA Became a Pet Portrait Studio for a Day
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.”
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.”
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.”
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 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.