Meet Jay McClellan, an Arkansas native living in East Falls who has made dog portraiture a fine art.
• That’s pup-posterous: “Occasionally I’ll get a customer who will request: ‘Can you please paint my dog driving a car?’"
• Animal pragmatism: While most of McClellan’s work is of dogs, he’ll do other animals too. “As long as you’re four-legged, I’ll paint you,” he said. “If you’ve got a hamster or a ferret, I’ll paint that."
When Jay McClellan’s mother died from pancreatic cancer in 2003, he gave up a 12-year career in advertising in Arkansas, sold his belongings, and became an artist.
Life had suddenly become too short to do anything he didn’t love.
But when the empty chairs McClellan was painting to symbolize the loss of his mom weren’t resonating the way he intended, a professor urged him to paint something that made him full, something that made happy.
So he painted his dogs.
“And that’s where this dog thing began,” he said.
McClellan, 42, received his master’s degree from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and now makes a living painting dogs in the sunny studio of the East Falls home he shares with his wife, his daughter, and their dogs, Lucky, a 9-year-old hound mix, and Acorn Shaking Ava Belle Blue, a 3-year-old Bluetick Coonhound.
Though he’s lived in Philly since 2006, Arkansas still runs strong in McClellan, who speaks with a pronounced drawl through a bushy auburn beard. Flecks of acrylic paint cover his shirt and jean apron, and he wears a baseball cap featuring his favorite type of dog, a coonhound, instead of his favorite sports team.
McClellan’s typical commission is a 30-by-40-inch pooch portrait for $2,650. But what McClellan really loves is painting big, on 7-by-6-foot canvases, often making his furry subjects larger in art than in life.
“You feel like you’re in the painting," he said.
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A 7-by-6-foot painting of McClellan’s beloved, deceased dog, Honey, hangs in White Dog’s Haverford location.
“They always let me sit in front of the painting," he said. “It’s an amazing feeling.”
A portrait McClellan did of Texas friends’ Bernese Mountain Dog also hangs in the restaurant. When the dog died recently, his friends called White Dog and bought a bottle of champagne for the people who were sitting under the painting.
About half of the dogs McClellan paints have died, but if the subject is alive and local, he likes to play with the dog and meet the owner. He’ll then create three or four sketches, stretch his own canvas, and get to work with acrylic paints.
McClellan prefers to paint dogs lollygagging instead of in action.
“If you live with a dog and you have a dog, there’s so much just relaxing, laying around,” he said. “I really like to capture that home life part of the dog.”
McClellan is proud of that line and of his work, but he’s even prouder of his own dogs.
He still gets teary talking about Tip and Honey, the first dogs he owned as a young man. The dogs that helped him through his mother’s death. The dogs that helped him find his gift. The dogs he loved so much that when they died, he wrapped their bodies in paintings he did of them and buried them in the backyard.
“I know that pain, and that connection of loving and losing a dog,” he said.
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Sometimes McClellan faces an uphill battle in the art community, where painting dogs is rarely likened to being the next Picasso. But that’s all right with him.
“There’s a part of me that would like to be considered in that academic-type world, but a larger part of me just likes the idea of the relationship between man and dog or woman and dog and how they fit into the family unit,” he said. “I like the power of the dog as a pet, and then the power of art therapy and how the two play together."
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