When Barbara Laricos' niece and nephew-in-law escaped from a house fire in the middle of the night with their three dogs and little else, the Ellicott City resident knew the young couple would have trouble shaking off the tragedy that might have been.

So to help them rebuild their lives, the retired federal administrator wanted to present them with an unusual gift that would help them remember what's important in life.

She turned to Sherry Kendall.

Kendall, 53, operates Wagging Tail Portraits, a business that offers custom-painted portraits of pets. For Laricos, Kendall painted three glass Christmas ornaments of the couple's bulldog and pair of Jack Russell terriers.

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The recipients were "absolutely stunned" by their beauty and accurate depiction, Laricos recalled, and the portraits of their beloved pets went a long way toward helping them cope with the tremendous physical and sentimental losses.

"There's just something in the eyes," Laricos said of the portraits. "Sherry really captures the spirit of the animal."

With three dogs and five cats, Kendall, who moved her studio and gallery last August from Main Street in Ellicott City to a farmhouse in Lisbon that was built in 1840, has plenty of firsthand pet experience. The artist's dog, Koda, a 7-year-old golden retriever who made his presence known from behind a locked door at the remodeled studio on Frederick Road, barked his way into taking part in his owner's interview.

From hobby to business

The idea of turning a hobby into a business was hatched in 2004, after Kendall started adorning ornaments with portraits of friends' pets to give as presents. Word spread, and she quickly began receiving requests to paint portraits to honor pets that had died as well. That effort soon expanded to include portraits on canvas.

Kendall paints her subjects from photographs but also likes to meet them.

"I love to take the photo, meet the dog and interact," said Kendall, who lives in Carroll County. "And I like how buyers are so touched by the paintings that they always give me hugs."

As Kendall talked, surrounded by paintings of animals in her gallery's main room, including a few of cats and one of a horse, a restless Koda demonstrated why custom paintings of pets are done from photos.

The painter described a certain pet-loving segment of the population as her largest source of clientele.

"Nine out of 10 of my customers are single, newly married or empty nesters," she said, listing the statuses of people who most frequently regard their pets as equal members of the family. Most want their dogs painted, but she has also done portraits of a gerbil and a lizard.

For Julie Mendoza, the subject to be painted was a cat. A year ago, a stray cat adopted Mendoza, as the McLean, Va., resident tells it, and when a strong feline-human relationship developed rather unexpectedly — I don't even come from a cat family," marveled Mendoza — she ordered a custom ornament of Pretty Girl, also known as Bella.

After receiving the finished product a few months ago, she was so pleased that she ordered another one — this time a surprise gift for a friend in her 90s whose cat had died.

"All people have a soft spot for their pets, but the elderly often talk to them as they would a companion," Mendoza said. "My friend knows that something is happening because I asked her for a photo (of her cat), but she doesn't know what — yet."

Thriving in a down economy

Kendall, who graduated from the New York-based Parsons School of Design, always has three or more easels going at one time.

And her business has not only survived the recession, it has thrived.