Palo Alto Weekly

Arts & Entertainment - December 4, 2009

The animal kingdom

Pets are the stars of Atherton ceiling mural painted by fledgling artist

by Rebecca Wallace

Cash has the lead role in this artistic enterprise. In fact, he plays God. But he's a decidedly down-to-earth star.

He patiently scratches at the door to be let out. He patiently scratches at the door to be let in. He sniffs at things. He rolls on the couch.

All the while, his face is taking shape in the celestial scene above. Her arm stretched heavenward, artist Sarah Woodward is painting a replica of Michelangelo's Sistine Chapel fresco "The Creation of Adam" on the ceiling. The oil painting is in the yellow Wachtel family kitchen in Atherton — and it stars the family pets, past and present.

Cash, a peachy-orange and white Brittany hunting dog, portrays both God and Adam, paw reaching to touch paw. "Adam" is Cash from his puppy days, and "God" is the grown dog, albeit slightly thinner and younger than in reality. After all, models need to look their best.

The project was once called the Canine Chapel, but the family zoo extends beyond dogs. Also in the mural are cats Elvis, Sparkle and Pebbles, and Ellie the parakeet. Still to be painted are another cat, a puppy and Phaedrus the bearded dragon.

Photos of the animals surround Woodward where she perches on the kitchen island in jeans and socks. She acknowledges that a furry and feathery version of the Sistine Chapel might strike some as comical. "Whenever I tell people about it, I start laughing," she says.

But Woodward, a family friend of the Wachtels, also takes the painting very seriously because she knows how much the Wachtels love their animals. Furthermore, the commission is part of a patchwork of gigs allowing Woodward to make ends meet as an artist. As a recent Stanford University graduate just starting to travel the real world, she knows the path won't always be easy.

"You can't rely on one source," she says, adding, "I don't know too many artists right out of school who can make a living."

Woodward graduated in June with a bachelor of arts degree in psychology and a minor in studio art. When she got home from school, the family Australian shepherd died, and she painted a portrait of him. Her mother loved it, first getting teary and then suggesting that Woodward might be able to earn some money painting other portraits. Her daughter was dubious — "I wanted to do my own deep art" — but now enjoys it.

"Everyone gets really excited to see their animals in oil paint," Woodward says. She has now done pet and house portraits; commissions have typically yielded $250 to $750.

Also helping to pay Woodward's San Francisco rent is her part-time job at the Mural Music & Arts Project in East Palo Alto. There she coordinates health education through the arts, teaching at schools in East Palo Alto and elsewhere.

Her program helps educate students about such issues as drug prevention, stress relief and self-esteem. In one exercise, students made "self-portraits without the face," portraying themselves not through what they look like, but through activities they enjoy. In a project about fast food, the students made sculptures with straws, burger wrappers and other accoutrements.

Woodward enjoys teaching and the sense of using art to better society; she says she may go into art therapy one day. "When you're making art with someone, you form a really strong connection," she says.

In the meantime, she's also focusing on her own art. She's chiefly an oil painter but also works with wood and found objects.

Woodward hails from New Orleans, where Hurricane Katrina hit just before she came to Stanford. Her family fled to their vacation home in Mississippi, where they escaped much of the devastation. Still, their houses had some damage, and they had to chainsaw their way out of the Mississippi home after the half-mile driveway was blocked with trees.

Struck by the damage she saw around her, Woodward gathered wood, tin cans and other debris, shipping some of the objects to Stanford and packing others in suitcases. She turned the debris into sculptures that focused on healing from the storm. One outdoor installation she created near Stanford's Green Library was funded in part by a grant from the Chappell-Lougee scholarship program.

"This was my effort to share what my family, friends and fellow New Orleanians had experienced in the days and months following the storm," Woodward wrote in an artist's statement. "It's a collection of personal stories, news articles, drawings, paintings, photographs and assembled debris from friends' and family members' homes."

Two of her Katrina pieces are now part of a group show at the Greenlining Institute, a public-policy organization in Berkeley. Woodward also plans to start approaching galleries in San Francisco. Like many an artist, Woodward says promoting her art can be more difficult than creating it. It's hard to know how to price it, and not every promotional effort will be successful.

Recently, she printed fliers about her pet portraits and brought them to a "pet pride day" in San Francisco. It was tough to find success with the attendees, she says. "They're certainly not going to drop 500 bucks for a pet portrait for someone they don't know."

So the word-of-mouth method seems the most promising for now. As the erstwhile Canine Chapel gets ready for its unveiling, Woodward hopes that word will grow.

For his part, Jeff Wachtel says his family is very pleased with the kitchen mural. It started with a joke about Cash's secret life; the family used to make up stories about the dog inviting friends over and having adventures while they were away. One day one of them joked that Cash was so important he could wind up in the Sistine Chapel.

But the painting has already proved more than a joke, Wachtel says. It brings the family together to smile, share memories and look up. "We didn't mean to be eccentric or odd with this," he says. "The pets bring back great memories of family time, stories of the kids growing up and all the fun we had together. ... We've had a lot of unexpected benefits."

Wachtel adds: "It's great because we think so highly of Sarah. ... She's absolutely brilliant in addition to being an incredibly nice person. And we're helping her get started on her career."

Info: For more about Sarah Woodward's art, go to sarah.backlight.org.

Comments

Posted by Robert, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Dec 4, 2009 at 4:19 pm

Very well-written article about a pretty intricate piece of art (on a kitchen ceiling of all places!) Here's a photo of the "Creation of Cash", with all the animals, including the lizard Phaedrus, the cat Desdemona, and the dog Rocky:

Web Link


Posted by Robert, a resident of East Palo Alto
on Dec 4, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Also, there are some great photos of Sarah painting the mural in the pdf of the Palo Alto Weekly on pages 32 and 33: Web Link


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