Top: Jayden Madera with Daisy. Lucy Gellman Photos. Bottom: Dogs Lilo (the artist is junior Nigella Mejia, who did not want to be photographed) and Murphy (by junior Katelynn Morales).
Jayden Madera couldn't get it right. No matter how many times he studied an image of Daisy, a pit bull terrier mix at the New Haven Animal Shelter, something didn't stick when he put paint to canvas. In the photograph, Daisy seemed so vibrant and alive. On canvas, she felt static, flat. He couldn't feel her spirit moving through the piece.
Then he tried the eyes one more time, and watched as she came to life.
Madera is a senior at Cooperative Arts & Humanities High School, where he is studying visual art under veteran educator Kris Wetmore. This year, he is among a group of students behind Adopt, Don't Shop!, an exhibition of animals up for adoption at the New Haven Animal Shelter. In all, 12 of Wetmore’s students painted animals, nearly half of the 27 that are currently up for adoption.
The assignment came well before revelations of possible mistreatment at the shelter in late February. It marks the second year in a row that Wetmore’s juniors and seniors have done the project, a collaboration with the Friends of the New Haven Animal Shelter and the Mitchell Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library. From now through the end of March, the paintings will be on display at Mitchell, 37 Harrison St. in New Haven.
Kris Wetmore, who is the proud human mom to fur babies Bruno and Nala.
"I wanted to work with a local shelter," said Wetmore on a recent Thursday, as her students showed off their work. She praised Deb Wan, a volunteer with the Friends of the New Haven Animal Shelter, for working with her for the second year in a row.
"I love the art!" added Mitchell Branch Manager Marian Huggins in a phone call Tuesday afternoon, adding that she's trying to find a way to get students to the library before the show comes down next month. "Oh my gosh ... It's so beautiful. It's so vibrant."
Over a year ago, the project was inspired by Wetmore's own love for animals, and belief that adoption is more humane than buying from a store or breeder. At home, she is the proud mom to a rescue dog named Bruno, a Pyrenees mix adopted from the rescue group Halfway Home, and a sweet barn cat named Nala.
Students Miracle Perez, who painted a dog named Candy, and Hadil Albakkour, who painted Smudge. Albakkour did not want her face in the photo.
She brings that same energy into the classroom, where many of her students have pets at home that they’re eager to talk about. Thursday, she leaned in and cooed as Precious Burruss found an image of her new, pillow-like puppy, Snowy on her phone and showed it to the class. When Madera spoke about losing his older dog, Buttercup, to health issues, she grimaced with the pain of the story.
For students, the assignment has been both a revelation and a comfort. Madera said he was initially drawn to the image of Daisy because of personal experience with pitbulls. When he was a kid—younger than he is now—he was afraid of dogs, particularly pits and dobermans.
Mostly, he said, he didn't trust that they wouldn't bite or attack. Then he spent time with a friend's dog, a pitbull named Mama. Mama nuzzled him and came in close without biting.
"It was actually sweet and stuff," he said with a smile on a recent Thursday, holding up a canvas of Daisy in Wetmore's second-floor art classroom. "When I seen this dog [Daisy], I was like, 'I wanna do this.’”
"It's like relaxing, a chill vibe," he said of painting, adding that Wetmore’s encouragement helped him pull through the project. When he finally got the eyes right, he felt like he had finally nailed the assignment.
Harmony and Mariana Zepeda.
Across from him, fellow senior Mariana Zepeda held up a finished canvas of Harmony, a young calico cat with deep green eyes. While she has two dogs at home—Chihuahuas named Tyson and Canelo—it was a welcome challenge.In the finished piece, Harmony’s eyes grab a viewer, two jade-colored orbs that look beyond the frame. Tufts of gray and sandy fur explode around them.
Around her, classmates held up canvases of short-haired cats, inquisitive pits, wet-nosed terriers that together told a story of animals looking for a home. At one table, Hadil Albakkour showed off five-year-old Smudge, a black-and-white cat that pawed her way into Albakkour's heart when the project began a few months ago.
A senior at the school,Albakkour initially chose Smudge because she could feel a "strong personality" radiating from the picture. In the painting, Albakkour replaced a background stacked with closed cages with a solid smear of pink. The bright color is meant to enliven the work.
When she paints, "I be like, getting all the stress out from all my classes," Albakkour said. "You feel like you have free time when you do this."
Top: Bree, the creation of junior Melanie Contreras Mendez. Bottom: Senior Oddo de la Cruz with Camila.
While most students remained faithful to the pictures, Wetmore also allowed them to take some creative liberties, and the paintings are often more fun for it. Across a number of canvases, dogs open their mouths as if to say hello. Cats bat their big, soft eyes. A two-year-old pit bull terrier named Bree sits against a background that looks like it was designedby the painter Piet Mondrian, and not junior Melanie Contreras Mendez.
Wrapping a blue Lilo & Stitch sweater around her as she spoke, senior Oddo de la Cruz said she was drawn to 10-month-old Camila, a black-and-white domestic short hair cat, because she had her paw raised to the camera. She looked like she was saying hello with a furry, feline high-five. In real life, Camila is part of the shelter’s Cat Pawsitive Program.
As she worked, de la Cruz found the assignment calming. In a sea of looming deadlines, Camila was a bright spot.In the painting, the cat brings her soft, open paw right to the edge of the canvas, as though she might break through the two-dimensional barrier.
"Everything is just due in such a short time,” de la Cruz said. “So when I'm able to come into class and just do the art that I want to do without any restrictions, it kind of calms me, and it makes me forget about those stressors."
In her portrait of Pogo, a one-year-old pit bull terrier mix, senior Catarina Eastman has depicted the dog atop a bed of violets and clover, the sun setting in the background. Behind the pup, a spectacular sunset streaks the sky in yellows, pinks, greens and blues. Nearly glowing in the light, Pogo sticks out her long pink tongue, looking at something just outside of the frame.
"I was just trying to do something weird and unique for her," Eastman said. Originally, she thought that Pogo was an older dog, and wanted to incentivize adopting her. She thought of her own beloved dogs, Arlo and Bandit, at home. "Someone, maybe this will catch their eye.”
To learn more about the Friends of the New Haven Animal Shelter, visit their website or Facebook page. Adopt, Don’t Shop! runs at the Mitchell Branch of the New Haven Free Public Library through the end of March.