On a visit to the small New England village of Kent, Connecticut, last year Christie Robb saw “ARTdogs of Kent,” a series of outdoor sculptures of ceramic dogs, painted and decorated by artists. She knew right away the concept would work well in Princeton. “The concept fits perfectly in Princeton because of its strong support of the arts and its bustling downtown,” says Robb, who is co-chair with Jody Erdman of the first annual Princeton Dog Walk. A collection of 50 uniquely altered canine sculptures, which were “unleashed” at a private event for artists and sponsors in May, are now on view throughout downtown Princeton shopfronts. The statues, decorated by students, artists, and personalities such as sculptor J. Seward Johnson, author Joyce Carol Oates, and designer/ architect Michael Graves, will be sold at auction on Saturday, September 16, at the D&R Greenway Land Trust on Rosedale Road. Proceeds will benefit the cardiac and pulmonary care program at the University Medical Center at Princeton.
Robb, an artist herself, says, “we really wanted this show to create a positive buzz throughout the community. The whole community will benefit from the dogs, just as the whole community benefits from the hospital.” A book with photos of all 50 dogs is also being planned.
The dogs began as identical, life-size, 30-inch-tall, eight-pound ceramic bisque “blanks” that resemble a well-behaved Labrador, created by Eric Samuelson of Litenin Ceramics in Gaylordsville, CT, the same ceramist who created the dogs for the Kent project. Last fall co-chairs Robb and Erdman sent proposal letters to 100 artists. Says Erdman: “After receiving a wide variety of proposals, we chose a selection of artists, who would cover different ages and many different art disciplines.” This also included sending dogs to 10 schools and arts organizations. The dogs were sent to the artists and organizations from January through April with a May 1 deadline and simple instructions: Have fun. The resulting creations vary widely in style; they came back painted, clothed, and, in some cases, altered from their docile, seated position.
“The beauty of the show is seeing how 50 people treated the same dog model,” Robb says. “Some of the artists had so much fun with this that they don’t want to give up their dogs. They plan to bid on them at auction.”
“I terraformed the dog,” says Robert Cannon, a full-time artist living in Princeton. “I have my method of working, which dictates what I do — I knew right away how it would come out.” Though he received a degree in architecture from Yale University in the early ’90s, Cannon is now an artist working primarily as a sculptor whose work is heavily influenced by the “melding of technology and the landscape.” Cannon altered the original structure of the dog, cutting it apart and reassembling it with the cavities and seams filled with earth and living plants, both literally and figuratively animating the sculpture in a remarkable way.
Cannon’s artistic interests are very much fueled by his experiences growing up in New Jersey, “where images of second growth forests, vast man made reservoirs, overgrown farms, rusted out factories, and flooded quarries all amid super-highways and biotech industrial plants, pressed heavily on me. We live in a state that has seen the rise and fall of several eras and American history, and that history is written large in the landscape. Reading the landscape is key to understanding who we are and what lies ahead. This is what motivates my work,” says Cannon in a phone interview.
‘Barking Dog” is a creation by full-time parent, part-time artist Cindy Besselaar. Besselaar considers herself a collage artist working with photographic papers and is most currently working on large-scale botanical assemblages on particle board and canvas. Besselaar studied textile design at FIT and decorative painting at Parsons in New York in the early 1990s before starting her own decorative painting business. She put all of her experience together in creating “Barking Dog,” a process which involved photographing trees in Greenway Meadows Park, manipulating the images of tree bark on a computer, and then applying them to the surface of the dog, resulting in a richly colorful, abstracted surface. Besselaar says the project “was a great opportunity to be able to apply my own artistic technique to something unique and different — I know a lot of people had fun doing it.”
J. Seward Johnson Jr. is best-known for his lifelike, figurative bronze sculptures set in public spaces, which often cause passers-by to perform a double-take in order to determine whether or not the figures are real. For the Princeton Dog Walk Johnson created “Fetch,” a black dog holding a white basket labeled “biohazard,” filled with dirty gauze pads and rubber gloves. Though the basket contents are “rather repulsive,” says Johnson, he considers the overall gestalt of the piece to be tongue-in-cheek as “the dog holds the basket in the most benign way, as if he’s just doing his job.”
Johnson says that the experience of making “Fetch” was a personal throw-back of 40 years to when he first started sculpting. Though he has been a successful artist for many years, surrounded by the latest tools and technology, Johnson had very little formal training. He took one sculpture class but quit before completing it and simply procured himself a studio and began to make sculpture. He made “Fetch” at his home in Florida, where he has none of his sculpting tools and had to be creative with what he had available — no small feat considering he had to cut and reposition the head to tilt upward and hold a basket. “It was a good challenge. It was fun. It was like starting over again,” he says.
Full-time artist Eva Mantel created “Mascot” in which she “covered the dog with heiroglyphic-looking animals, meant to have an archaic look — as if it was something from a museum.” In fact the surface is collaged with images from studies that Mantel created in museums looking at other images of dogs in archeology.
Mantel was “born and bred” in Princeton. Her parents ran an educational publishing company but her father was also a filmmaker and documentarian, and her mother recorded poetry and other spoken word performances back in the ’50s including some by the legendary Dylan Thomas. Mantel earned a degree in English (while also taking art classes) at Penn in 1985 and earned a masters in fine art from the School of Visual Art in New York in 1988. She creates works on paper, video, and installation pieces.
Though she contemplates culture more broadly in most of her other work, in “Mascot” she says she is also exploring ownership. “I wanted it to be all dogs to all cultures. I tried to make it multicultural, so much so, that there would be so many `owners’ that it would be confusing,” she says. “Mascot,” humorously and cleverly, wears a dog-tag inscribed “call me.”
Princeton Dog Walk, 50 ceramic dogs painted and decorated by artists, students, and organizations. On display throughout downtown Princeton storefronts through Labor Day. Selection of dogs on display September 7 to 15 at Princeton Day School, Colross Admission Building. Auction Saturday, September 16, D&R Greenway Land Trust, Rosedale Road, Princeton. $50. 609-497-4069 or visit www.princetonhcs.org/auxiliary.