Brooklyn Dog a Rising Star in New York Art Scene

Sharon Guynup
for National Geographic Channel
October 21, 2002
Most of America's 68 million dogs are pampered pets, but a small percent
still actually work for their biscuits. Among these gainfully employed
canines, there's a range of occupations, from seeing-eye and guard dogs
to sheep herders and hunting dogs. But artists?

Tillie, a three-year-old Jack Russell terrier from Brooklyn is, according to her Web site, "the world's preeminent canine artist." She is indeed a rising star among visual artists on the New York City contemporary art scene.

The 16-pound female, whose full name is Tillamook Cheddar (for the Oregon cheese she's so fond of), has seen her pictures hung in 12 exhibitions over the past three years, including six one-dog shows. She's made a dozen TV appearances—and the four-legged artist has sold about 100 pictures, with sales "in the five-figures."

Tillie's abstract creations have been likened to modern masters Willem de Kooning and Cy Twombly. In her most recent show at the prestigious National Arts Club—entitled "Collarobations"—she created works with the controversial artist Tom Sachs, photographer Dirk Westphal, and 24 other humans.

How Does a Dog Embark on an Art Career?

Okay, so how exactly does a dog embark on an art career? It all began when Tillie was just a six-month-old pup. One day, her owner, freelance writer Bowman Hastie, was sitting on the couch writing on a legal pad. The dog jumped up and started scratching away at the pad.

"I thought she was trying to communicate in a similar way to me," remembers Hastie. So he got out some carbon paper and gave her a go at the pad—and she scratched out her first image. "I thought, 'this is really cool, my dog can draw.'"

Creating Art in a Frenzy of Excitement

She's been drawing ever since. And Tillie is wild about "drawing." When Hastie asks her, "Do you want to work?" she bounds after him. She jumps into the nearest chair and intently eyes his every move, trembling with anticipation as he prepares her "canvas." He places colored transfer paper atop back-to-back, ten-inch squares of fuzzy matte board (Tillie's currently making diptychs), then dog-protects it with a layer of packing tape.

When he's done, Tillie takes a headlong leap to snatch it from his hand and gets to work. She alternates between what Hastie describes as "deliberate mark-making" and frenetic canine creativity. The dog shakes the board, primes the surface with prolonged licking, chews on a corner and wrestles with it, and digs furiously in spurts, punctuating it all with the occasional bite.

When she shreds off a piece of tape, she looks at Hastie expectantly to remove it. But she growls menacingly if he tries to touch her creation. "She'll bite you if you get in the way of her work," he said.

The effort is an enthusiastic mix of work and play. "I think a lot of the best art comes from the merging of those two impulses," he notes.

It's Hastie who determines when the work is finished—usually because it's about to be ripped apart. "There's a thin line between destruction and creation for her," he said. He grabs the board away, and she leaps after it like a circus dog, jumping head-high to snatch it back.

Carpe Diem

But once he's given her a tidbit of her favorite cheddar, Tillie ignores the picture even if it's placed directly in front of her. Like most dogs, she lives in the moment. Even when chasing squirrels, her other favorite activity, she forgets about it once it's disappeared up a tree. "It's like that with her work, too. Once she's finished, that's it," said Hastie. She's obviously much more interested in the process than in the finished work.

The resulting images are a brilliant frenzy of deep tooth marks and claw strokes in patterns of hard and soft parallel lines and crosshatches that are undeniably lovely.

Some of Tillie's creative drive probably stems from the fact that she falls into the category of "working terrier." The Jack Russell blood line traces back over 100 years to Devonshire, England. They were bred to hunt foxes, which sometimes means taking the chase underground—and digging.

"They want to work," notes Hastie. "If they don't, they find something to do—from guarding something to wrecking your couch. The artwork provides her with sanctioned digging, which she can't do much of in the city."

Tillie doesn't produce more than a drawing a day, and some days she doesn't work at all.

Is This Art?

Many questions have been raised about Tillie's pictures in the press, notably: Is this art? "It's obviously art," said Hastie. "Who is the artist may be a more difficult question. Arguably, it's a collaborative effort. It's inevitable that I impose some human will on it, but I try to keep it an expression of her energy."

He insists that Tillie is the creative force, and he is just her studio assistant. He uses the example of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Assistants told him when to paint and brought his supplies.

But Hastie's own aesthetic choices are present in some way in each picture, be it the choice of background and transfer color, size or display of the work—and their titles: "Kite Flying in China," "It's the Stick I Want," "Furry Brancusi" or "Lily Pad."

He also acts as her agent and manager, booking press coverage and gallery shows.

Can Animals Be Artists?

But the big question requires a leap of faith. Can animals be artists? Creatures of many species have been heralded for their artistic efforts. Among those are cats and gorillas, notably the famous Koko.

Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, Russian-born conceptual artists based in New York, have given art classes to domesticated elephants; the elephant's paintings have been exhibited internationally in museums and have sold in select auction houses. Komar and Melamid have collaborated with animals for decades, including dogs and beavers.

So can a dog be an artist? "Why not?" says Hastie. "Once you accept that your dog is an artist, the possibilities are endless." Tillie seems to agree.

Dogs With Jobs

Viewers can tune in to Dogs With Jobs now in the U.S. and on our international channels. In its third season, Dogs With Jobs explores new and unusual jobs and sheds more light on the powerful bonds between working dogs and their human partners. Every episode stars amazing dogs.

This season of Dogs With Jobs sniffs out a truffle hound in Italy and goes to Florida to track down a bat dog and a termite buster. Fourteen breeds never before seen on the show make an appearance, including Japanese Shiba Inu, Gos d'Atura Catala (Catalan sheepdogs), Spanish water dogs, the Hungarian Pumi, and Karelian bear dogs.

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