Phyllis Brust, PhD
Interviews with Artists Bonnie Stasser & Janet Landay
Updated: Jun 6, 2022
Animal artists create magic. They can turn a swiggle into a dog and many swiggles into a dog walking. They capture the souls of their subjects. They do it in all media, black and white and color, and with shading, proportion, light and composition.
Artists Janet Landay and Bonnie Stasser are passionate about their work. Janet is a pet portrait painter* based in New York City and Bonnie is an artist and photographer from Kansas whose muses are the horses and cattle from her ranch along with the moody vistas of the prairie.
“I do love the time I spend painting animals,” said Janet. “I grew up with dogs and have always loved all kinds of animals. But recently, it seems our society has become totally besotted with cats and dogs,” she added. "In my apartment building in New York there are over 80 dogs and who knows how many cats."
That’s borne by the numbers. According to the 2019-2020 American Pet Products Association (APPA) National Pet Owners Survey, of approximately 84.9 million US homes, 67% own at least one pet. That is up from 56% in 1988, the first year of the APPA survey, according to an Insurance Information Institute article on pet statistics.
Pet owners are Janet’s target market. Bonnie’s target group is broader—anyone who loves horses, cattle or is moved by visions of the West. They are also small business owners who need to market their services, develop websites, keep records, determine pricing and more. They must have guts, confidence and thick skins.
Here’s how they started, their advice to others thinking of a similar career and the “aha” moment they knew they had to be artists.
How did you decide to embark on this career?
Bonnie: In 2008 my husband suffered a heart attack, and then was laid off from work...It was an extremely hard time both emotionally, and financially, as well as physically. To escape the stress I was under, I decided to pick up the paintbrush again...When I'm painting I forget everything else and simply disappear into the painting…It was one of these paintings that I did during this time that was a HUGE hit on Facebook and was sold before it was finished... That opened my eyes to the idea that I might be able to do this as a living.
Janet: I started in December 2017 when I painted a portrait of Khloe, a gentle giant of a dog belonging to my dog’s caregiver, Elvis. It was his Christmas present and he loved it! While painting Khloe, I realized how much I enjoyed capturing her personality in paint. I also realized I was good at it. And then it struck me: I could do this professionally...
Do you do this full-time?
If not, what else do you do?
Bonnie: My goal is to do this full-time, however at the moment the competition for my time is our horses and farm chores.
Janet: I do this part-time. I’m still employed by the College Art Association (CAA) where I direct the CAA-Getty International Program, a project that brings art historians and curators from non-Western countries to the association’s annual conference. It’s a wonderful opportunity to meet people from all over the world who share a deep interest in art but who approach it from widely varying perspectives. By the way, as I get to know each participant informally, I discover that many of them have cats and dogs they are passionate about. They keep photos of them on their phones just like I do.
What is a typical day (in an atypical career)?
Bonnie: I'm up by 6 a.m. to get my husband ready to go to work, fixing his lunch and such, then we do some of the chores together and I finish them up. I'm usually back…between 7:30 and 9:00 a.m. depending on what is going on outside. Then I sit down for a while most mornings and do my devotions and pray. My goal is to be working either in or on the gallery business by 10 a.m. It doesn't always happen...I finish up around 4 p.m. and get supper ready and then out to do the chores again for the evening.
Janet: I go into the office (CAA) two days a week, though often I do additional work from home. I try to paint on the days I’m not at the office, carving out time between around 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. I also paint most Saturdays and sometimes on Sundays, too. In addition, I play the viola in a quartet on Monday nights and...my dog Buster and I visit middle schools as part of a dog-therapy program called A Fair Shake for Youth. We both love it.
How do people hear
about your work?
Bonnie: Most everyone has seen my work online on Facebook or through my website. However, I've also done many different art events through the years that have been wonderful. I enjoy meeting past clients and future clients and talking to them about my work.
Janet: Thus far it’s been almost entirely by word of mouth. I started by making portraits of my friends’ pets for free until I had enough to create a website and Instagram account. Then I made a postcard that I dropped off at pet food stores and doggie daycare centers around town and handed out to anyone I met who owned a pet…This past winter I organized my first small exhibition and got a few commissions from that. I have two more exhibitions lined up for the coming year. I’m thinking about placing some advertisements in newspapers or going on Etsy but I haven’t started exploring this yet.
What is your training?
Bonnie: Oh gosh, I guess it all depends on how far back you want me to go!...Hahaa. I've been drawing, sketching, painting my entire life in some way shape or form and started doing some photography in junior high. I've always loved creating art of any kind...I took art classes in high school for four years and then some evening classes from my aunt Tynne LaForest who was a well-renowned artist in our area. I also took a long weekend class from an artist who painted for the Michigan Out-of-Doors magazine. Then a series of different photography classes on line.
Janet: I took a lot of studio art courses when I was in college (though I was not an art major) and started an MFA in painting after I graduated. But I dropped out in favor of a museum career and studied art history instead. I kept making things, however, whether it was embroidery, puppetry, drawing, or children’s books. I also enjoyed taking art classes periodically, including painting, drawing, jewelry making, and illustration. In 2006 I published an alphabet book with Chronicle Books, called Kangodile.
What do you like the most about your work?
Bonnie: Hmm... that’s a tough one because I like so much! I guess I would have to say that I love being able to put something on canvas that I see in my mind that no one has seen until I create it.
Janet: I love seeing how thrilled my customers are when they first see the portraits of their animals! They can’t get over how their beloved pet’s personality shines through the painted canvas. Though most of them probably never thought about hanging a portrait of their pet in their homes, they quickly fall in love with the idea and give their paintings pride of place.
What do you like the least?
Bonnie: Not being sure of my ideas! I've painted myself into a corner more than once! LOL.
Janet: The worse moments are when I’ve made false starts and have to begin a painting over again. Or when I feel the animal’s personality eludes me. I’m also not crazy about looking for new clients. I’m not an entrepreneur by nature, having always been employed by an organization. So the notion that this is a business and I’m in charge can be exciting but also daunting.
Advice to those interested in an artistic pet-related career?
Bonnie: Follow the "rules" until you know them well enough to break them, then be sure to break them! And, always, always trust your still, small voice; it’s never wrong.
Even though I started as a painter, I've dug into doing professional photography as art for the last nine years, and I learned so much. The photography part took off when I captured my father-in-law harvesting our wheat during a storm. That is where "Rainbow Harvester" began and has now become my highest selling print of all time...Rainbow Harvester was an adventure for me, and it started a great journey into learning all about photography and the equipment that I did not know at the time. Proof that trusting your still small voice, your gut, and asking questions will open doors and the journey will be grand. Not easy, but so well worth the work.
Janet: People tell you to “Go for it!” Or “Do what you love!” For me it was more complicated than that. When I was younger, I found the prospect of earning a living from my art too daunting, so much so that it ruined the pleasure I got from painting. I found an alternate career that was enormously gratifying, but it wasn’t the same as taking that big leap and pursuing my life as an artist.
It’s hard to make a living as an artist in this country. Whether it’s visual, performing, or literary arts, most practicing artists also do other things to earn a living. A lucky few are successful enough to give up their day jobs. For me, therefore, I had to wait until I could pursue this without worrying about how much money I would make from it.
As far as an artistic pet-related career, there seems to be a market for pet portraits...Perhaps it’s related to our Internet-obsessed Age of Anxiety, but pets have become even more precious to us—an essential source of love in an alien world. It makes me believe these portraits are important as ways to remember and honor the special creatures who share our homes and our hearts.
Thank you Janet Landay and Bonnie Stasser for your insights. Janet and Bonnie are two very different artists in two very different parts of the country united by a love of art and a love of animals.
For more information, to see more of their work and to contact the artists:
Bio and information about commissioning a painting: https://www.paintingcatsanddogs.nyc/info
To contact the artist: https://www.stassergalleries.com/contact
* I paint portraits of people’s pets, mainly dogs but also cats. Thus far no one has asked me to paint their guinea pigs, snakes, ferrets, fish, parrots, or any other types of exotic animals. But you never know…! (Janet Landay)
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