Today I had the pleasure of visiting the art studio of Cyrus Mejia, one of the original founders of Best Friends Animal Society. In addition to being a truly admirable and humble human being like his fellow founders, Cyrus is a tremendous artist whose paintings I have wanted to see in person for some time, and finally had the privilege of doing so today.
I was specifically interested in seeing his Dogs in Transition series which includes his collection of Pits and Perception paintings, as well as his more recent Mill Dogs Revenge paintings. As expected, no words could possibly do justice to this work, so I will not even attempt to describe what it was like to see it in person.
But for my dog-loving and rescuing friends out there, here is a bit about each collection:
Sadly, Best Friends devotes a great deal of its time and resources now to large-scale puppy mill busts, because the practice of mass breeding dogs this way has quite literally become an epidemic. One of the more noteworthy details about the life of puppy mill dogs is that they live in wire cages and stand and lay on wire mesh day and night. The Mill Dogs Revenge collection highlights two primary themes in response to this problem: “Living well is the best revenge” and puppy mill rescue dogs are “works in progress” in light of how damaged they are by the time of rescue, if it ever comes. Cyrus brought each of these rescued dogs individually to his house and invited them to “make themselves at home” on plush, ornate fabric strewn across his couch. While the color used to paint the couch and surrounding fabric is intense and clearly indicative of extravagance and comfort, the dogs themselves are left primarily in the original charcoal drawing to represent the “work in progress” aspect as each of the pups begins the long journey from damaged mill dog to happy, adopted pup in a forever home. Coincidentally, the last painting in this series that I saw was of a dog named Emily, so that capped off the viewing rather nicely–not to mention the fact that all of the dogs in this series have since been adopted.
Prior to the Vicktory Dogs coming to the sanctuary, Cyrus had been working on possible ideas for a Pits and Perception series, ultimately deciding to focus in just on the faces of each of the dogs. This collection includes paintings of both the Vicktory dogs and other pit bull type dogs at the sanctuary. The size of these paintings is an essential piece of what makes each one, as well as the collection as a whole, so powerful. Each painting is approximately 5 feet tall and 4 feet wide. As Cyrus noted, were the paintings small, they would simply be pet portraits. But when you’re standing in front of one of these faces that is nearly as large as you are, it’s an overwhelming experience.
It’s worth reading Cyrus’ own artist’s statement for each of these collections in their entirety online, but I thought this snippet in particular worth repeating:
I gave myself a challenge. To create art that could help change public perception of pit bulls. The idea that came to me was to fill a room with larger-than-life paintings of pit bulls and invite viewers to look closely at these dogs. I remember reading that Georgia O’Keefe decided to paint her series of large flowers in order to force people to stop and look at the flowers. I figured that I would do the same thing for the pit bulls.
Currently, it looks like some of these paintings will be included as part of an exhibit specifically focusing on pit bulls at an art museum in St. Louis this summer. Hopefully, dates and additional details will be available soon!
Another piece that I saw today that I knew nothing about but was truly blown away by (perhaps an unfortunate choice of words on my part, but nonetheless appropriate) was something called ARK. This work is literally a boat that was used in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina rescue. Over 6000 animals were rescued by Best Friends and other volunteers that year, and this boat is covered in, among other mementos, the endless collection of animal intake forms produced during that rescue operation. For anyone who’s interested in hearing a little more about it, you can watch its unveiling here:
Finally, “a personal” and celebratory note:
In addition to the Pits and Perception paintings, Cyrus created an entire series of paintings of all 22 pit bulls sent to Best Friends from the Michael Vick case. The dogs, and the paintings, were immediately renamed The Vicktory dogs and subsequently turned into a collection of wine bottle labels used for Best Friends’ fundraising, all of which you can purchase through the Dog Lovers Wine Club. Whether you’re looking to buy a bottle of “Georgia” or “Denzel” and help support Best Friends’ work in the process, or perhaps create a gift for a friend with a custom label of their favorite pup topping off a nice Syrah/Tempranillo blend, I highly recommend this winery. The wines are fabulous and so is the customer service. Here’s an example of one of the custom labels they created for a gift for a friend of mine.