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Mother-daughter pet-portrait business gets boost from Oprah

Personalized greeting cards make Winfrey's Favorite Things list for 2012

By Janene Holzberg, For The Baltimore Sun

9:07 PM EST, December 13, 2012

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When Oprah Winfrey likes something, she makes no bones about letting the entire world know.

Famous for being an ardent dog lover, the TV and magazine queen gave her blessing again this year for the art of a Howard County pet-portrait studio in the December issue of O the Oprah Magazine on her annual list of recommended gifts.

Wagging Tail Portraits received Winfrey's nod for the second consecutive year, but with a twist: It was Natalie Kendall who created the digital art for the new line of greeting cards made from mom Sherry Kendall's hand-painted portraits, scoring the mother-daughter duo a shared spot on Oprah's Favorite Things 2012.

"It's really cool, especially to be connected with my mom's stuff," said Natalie Kendall, a college student who recently changed her major to history, with a minor in art.

Sherry Kendall, who operates her Lisbon gallery from a renovated 1840s farmhouse, had been selected in 2011 for her custom glass ornaments and paintings.

"It's a very rare occurrence for someone to make a second appearance on the list," which quickly places chosen items in the public eye, said Adam Glassman, creative director at Hearst Magazines.

"When Oprah likes something, she likes it," he said of his boss, whom he described as "very into" the mother-daughter story. She picked her favorites from 500 top-tier contenders, he said.

Winfrey writes on her website: "Sending in a picture of a beloved pet, which is then computer-illustrated and made into custom greeting cards, is a heck of a lot easier than convincing a friend's gerbil to pose while someone carves his likeness in marble."

The dog whose portrait is featured in the accompanying sample of the cards is Winfrey's beloved and oft-written-about cocker spaniel, Sadie.

"Our readers love their pets, and any personalization that allows them to honor and memorialize them, they just eat that up," Glassman said.

As recently as two years ago, Natalie Kendall described her style of pet portraiture as "more cartoonish." But that changed when she took a computer graphics class and got an assignment to create a drawing from a photograph.

She worked from her mother's shot of a mastiff, a large and powerful dog, and instinctively knew she was onto something when her teacher "absolutely loved" her rendition, she said.

"Every shape and shade [of the animal's face and fur], I draw out, and it takes six to 20 hours to complete," she said of her digital illustrations.

Black dogs can be done quickly because of their limited color palette, while illustrating a more intricately colored animal like Nutmeg, the family's 15-year-old tortoiseshell cat, can require double or triple the time, she said.

Her mom said she knew the minute she saw the mastiff portrait that they should create greeting cards.

Nowadays, mother and daughter share rooms in the studio on Frederick Road where, thanks to walls covered with pet portraits, "we are watched by so many eyes when we sit down to eat lunch," Natalie said jokingly. The family owns three Labrador retrievers: Koda, Cupcake and Chip.

But more often than not, they work at home in nearby Carroll County, where they gravitate to their own spaces.

"Mom's definitely more of a morning person than I am," Natalie said, hinting at their different approaches.

The Kendalls' selection for the much-anticipated Winfrey list began inauspiciously this time, Sherry recalls.

They had gone last summer to a popular pet-product media showcase in New York and at the last minute scored a 6-foot vendor's table for $1,000, down from the $1,500 the venue initially commanded.

Even though the event highlights "what's hot and new in the pet industry," Sherry said, she still wasn't sure about investing that much money with no guarantee of sales. She and her husband, Steve, decided to go for it, and the risk eventually paid off.

"But then the Oprah people just picked up a sample and quietly put it back down," she said, thinking at first that they weren't interested. "Maybe they didn't want anyone to guess what they might be choosing."

Before making the trip, the Kendalls had stuffed their SUV with boxes of Natalie's Wet Nose Greeting Cards, which encompass 85 dog breeds, as well as some paintings of cats and horses. Crates of Sherry's glass ornaments and new line of beverage glasses, which includes wineglasses as well as coffee, tea and beer mugs, were also crammed into the vehicle.

"We were trying to unload everything while annoyed cabdrivers honked at us to move," Sherry said, shaking her head.

Back at home, demand developed for the new line of digital cards and continued for Sherry's hand-painted products, and that led the pair, with help from Steve Kendall, to design a card that notifies gift recipients when there's a delay. A backlog develops when people wait until too close to the holidays to order a custom product that can't be completed in time, Sherry said, adding that drying time is also a major factor.

"Something Special is in the Works for You," reads the front of the announcement, which is decorated with one of Natalie's digital portraits. The hope is to head off any disappointment about having to wait for their gifts to arrive by offering a little preview of what's to come, Sherry said.

"I've even hired a customer-service person this year to handle calls and emails," she said. Generic products are also available for last-minute shoppers, she added.

One bonus from making it onto Winfrey's list this year was the magazine's contractual requirement that Wagging Tail Portraits contribute 30 sets of greeting cards to military spouses who were chosen by their peers as magazine winners for their contributions to society, Sherry said.

"The military has always been near and dear to my heart, and I really appreciate what the spouses of people who serve our country go through," Natalie said.

Sherry has also long worked with such local animal charities as Hero Dogs and Animal Advocates of Howard County, contributing certificates for custom products that they raffle as fundraisers.

Natalie says her greeting cards "could become a career," but adds that her main goal is to work for her father's multimedia advertising company.

"I plan to keep all my irons in the fire," she said, adding with a shy smile that she could probably handle both, with her bosses' approval.