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.
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.
"You wouldn't think in this economy that I would be able to make it," she said.
In fact, business has increased dramatically enough that Kendall has decided to close the gift shop at the front of the studio on July 31 in order to concentrate on painting and pet portraiture.
She also teaches art to children in a homeschooling group, and in September, she plans to offer classes two nights a week at her studio.
At times, business has been too good. Two years ago, she painted 125 ornaments in a two-month period, and ended up with a frozen shoulder and doctor's orders for three months of physical therapy, she said. She demonstrated how she held the fragile globes at arm's length while painting and strained her rotator cuff as she worked.
The portrait-painting process begins with an under-painting of acrylic that is followed by an over-painting of water-soluble oils. Backgrounds take their cues from the photos she works from but usually employ bright colors and graphic designs.
Including scheduling and drying time, a painting can take as long as four months from start to finish before a client can pick it up. Christmas ornaments take about three weeks; though orders take longer to fill in pre-holiday months.
Helping animal aid groups
An animal lover with an art education and a desire to give back to her community, Kendall's other focus is charity events. She has donated ornaments and redeemable coupons for custom paintings to be raffled off or auctioned by nonprofit organizations such as Animal Advocates of Howard County, Tails of Hope Animal Sanctuary, Pets on Wheels and Days End Farm Horse Rescue.
Last summer, she began holding fundraisers at her studio, often using the freestanding garage out back to host a jazz band and serve refreshments. Thirteen tree stumps sit upright in a circle around a Japanese maple to provide seating for owners who attend events with their pets. A portion of the proceeds from these events is pledged to various organizations.
Ann Selnick, president of Animal Advocates of Howard County, calls Kendall "an amazingly generous person" who donates her talents to that organization's Walk for Paws event. But she does so much more than that, she said.
"I gave my husband, Paul, a painting of our (adopted) rescue dog, Max, for our 40th wedding anniversary in December, and he was so happy," she said. The mutt, who's mostly a husky, came to the nonprofit with a broken tail and broken front teeth, stole their hearts and became part of their family.
"Sherry captured Max perfectly — even the twinkle in his eye," Selnick said.
Linda Junkins, director of Tails of Hope Sanctuary, told a similar tale. Her Mount Airy-based organization was the recipient of a $600 portrait coupon that was auctioned off at a June 11 fundraiser held at Wagging Tail Portraits. Kendall also painted a portrait of Junkins' dog, Sparks, a rottweiler who died unexpectedly.
"It's amazing that she can capture the essence of an animal's being," Junkins said. "I'm looking at his portrait right now, and it's like it comes off the wall and he's still with us. It's breathtaking."