Culture: Stories & Lit
By the time George had come into my life, I had more than three hundred convictions to my name and had been in prison over thirty times.
You might be thinking that I couldn’t have been much of a thief to get caught so many times over the years, but the truth is I found it so hard to cope with life on the outside that I had started to effectively check myself in to prison for the winter. It got to the point where I wouldn’t even bother to cover my tracks while I was out burgling. I’d deliberately not wear gloves so I’d leave fingerprints, or I wouldn’t clean up after myself if I grazed my arm and started bleeding.
I knew what I was letting myself in for in jail, but at least inside I didn’t have to worry about having a roof over my head and feeding myself, which was sometimes too difficult to deal with on the streets.
It’s exhausting being homeless, shifting between day centres and hostels or missions, or sleeping in cars and bin sheds as I had to do after losing my flat in President House. Sometimes I was so desperate I felt like chucking a brick through a police station window and holding out my hands for the cuffs, just so I could get a bed for the night.
I was stuck in one such cycle the day George came into my life. He turned up after I’d been out of prison for about seven or eight months, and the cold winter of 2009 was really setting in. Under normal circumstances, I’d have been thinking about getting sloppy on the next job, so as to get myself a short stay inside that would tide me over until the weather warmed up.
As it was, George had his feet well and truly under the table by the time I got round to thinking about that, and that threw a bloody big spanner in the works. If I went to prison, I would lose George. It was as simple as that. We’d come too far for me to even consider that an option. For the first time in what seemed like an eternity, I had someone other than myself to care for, and it had filled my life with meaning.
Over the years, I had met a few girls and I’d had a few relationships here and there, but nothing that had lasted more than a couple of months at most. I’d seen how my brothers and sister were with their children and how much love they had for them; I was beginning to feel that way about George.
My feelings for him became crystal clear to me one day when we were sitting outside Fenchurch Street station and a well-to-do woman came up to us and started raving about George.
‘What a lovely dog!’ she said, scratching him on his head and generally making a big fuss of him. ‘He’s absolutely gorgeous! I’ve never see such a cute Staffie. I don’t suppose you would let me buy him off you?’
I was completely stunned and totally speechless. Who was she to ask that?
‘He’s absolutely fantastic,’ she continued. ‘I’d give you a really good price …’ She started to say she could pay £2,000 cash, but I stopped her in her tracks.
‘Look, no offence, miss, but have you got kids?’ I asked her.
‘Yes, but I know Staffies and I’m sure he’s good around children …’
‘No, forget that. What I’m saying is, how would you feel if I asked you if I could buy one of your kids?’
She looked at me in confusion.
‘You see the thing is, George is like my son. I love him like he’s my own flesh and blood. I wouldn’t sell him for two grand. I wouldn’t even sell him for a hundred grand. He’s too important to me.’
She was very gracious about having her offer turned down flat. There were no hard feelings and even George had a twinkle in his eye when the lady walked away.
Anyhow, that conversation had cemented what I already knew to be true; I was sticking with George come hell or high water. I just wasn’t sure how I was going to do it, not in those early months. George meant a hell of a lot more to me than anything else in the world. I loved him, and losing him was unthinkable.
When we sat together on the floor of my bedsit, I was remembering that woman and the crazy amount of money she’d offered for George. Two thousand pounds would have been mighty nice right then.
‘I should have sold you to that lady, George. Could have got myself a nice gold watch for that.’
George let out a sigh, lay down and put his head between his front paws. He looked quite sad, to tell the truth, and I felt bad.
‘Oi, listen, I was only joking. It ain’t your fault,’ I said. His ears pricked up.
‘Well I suppose it is, you daft git,’ I laughed, ‘but that’s a good thing, mate. Don’t you worry.’
I thought back over the time I’d had George. I had barely let him out of my sight since the day I took him on. I wouldn’t even leave him tied up outside Tesco if I needed a tin of dog food; I’d always ask a mate I trusted to keep an eye on him for a minute, and I’d dash in as quickly as I could.
To begin with I was terrified of the mad Scot showing up, and then after that lady tried to buy him, I was scared stiff of him being stolen.
Leaving George alone to go out thieving was completely out of the question. My gammy leg already made that difficult, because I wasn’t as nimble as I used to be. What if I got caught and was put in the cells overnight? Who would feed the dog and take him out? I knew full well I would lose George for good if I got locked up, because there was nobody I knew who would be able to look after him for me for any length of time.
‘That ain’t happening,’ I said out loud, thinking about being banged up again. ‘I need to get a job.’
George was sitting up attentively now and had one of those looks on his face that said ‘Silly bastard, how you gonna do that?’ but I wanted him to know what was on my mind. I suppose I was a silly bastard to think he might have understood, but he seemed to be listening to me.
I know I was also a very stupid bastard for being nearly forty and having no job prospects whatsoever. Who would take me on with a criminal record as long as mine? It read like a telephone directory. And, even if some poor bugger was mad enough to take a chance on me, how would I manage to hold down a job with George by my side? It was beyond me.
There was only one thing for it. I didn’t want to have to rely on begging forever, but I knew I had to carry on doing it in the short term at least, or the pair of us would starve. It was that simple.
‘Come on, George,’ I said. ‘Let’s go and take a little stroll down Shoreditch High Street.’
From George the Dog, John the Artist by John Dolan. Copyright © 2014 by John Dolan. Published in 2015 by The Overlook Press, Peter Mayer Publishers Inc. www.overlookpress.com. All rights reserved.
News: Guest Posts
National Portrait Gallery exhibit reminds us why we love her
A riveting photographic exhibition, Portraits of an Icon, recently opened at London’s National Portrait Gallery illustrates the life of actress and fashion maven Audrey Hepburn (1929-1993). This exhibit features photographs from Hepburn's early years in London as a dancer to her later years as an impassioned philanthropist. From the museum’s description:
“A selection of more than seventy images defines Hepburn’s iconography, including classic and rarely seen prints from photographers such as Richard Avedon, Cecil Beaton, Terry O’Neill, Norman Parkinson and Irving Penn. Alongside these, an array of vintage magazine covers, film stills, and extraordinary archival material complete her captivating story.”
Hepburn is revered for her performances in a string of films produced in ’50s and ’60s including: Gigi, Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Charade, My Fair Lady and Funny Face (my personal favorite). Along with her acting and humanitarian work with UNICEF, Hepburn was also an avid animal lover. Dogs were an important part of her family for much of her life. Her dog, Mr. Famous, is one of her best known companions. He traveled with the actress to film locations and photo shoots, and even had a cameo in 1957’s Funny Face. It was a common sight to see Hepburn and her beloved Yorkie bicycling around studio lots during breaks in filming.
The camera loved Hepburn’s natural beauty and inimitable style. The best images on display in Portraits of an Icon radiate an inner quality seldom captured on film. Like the subject herself, the portraits display a wide range, showing Hepburn as a young ballerina, Hollywood actress, fashion model, humanitarian. For those fortunate to attend the exhibit, they will find more reasons to fall in love with Audrey Hepburn (and her canine co-pilots).
Portraits of an Icon appears at the National Portrait Gallery in London through October 18, 2015. For more information visit www.npg.org.uk.
The play I was watching was just 10 minutes in when a black Labrador jumped up next to me and settled in for a nap. This was going to be no ordinary theater experience.
I was at JACK, a performing-arts space in Brooklyn, N.Y., to see Comfort Dogs: Live from the Pink House, the latest experimental play written and directed by William Burke. The Labrador, Gypsy, along with mixed-breed pups Bronco and Bluet, was part of the play’s canine cast.
Comfort Dogs explores the relationship between humans and canines, and our dependence on them, through music and spoken word. Burke was inspired to create the play after reading about therapy dogs visiting a local nursing home in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy. It sparked his curiosity about the emotional responsibility we assign to dogs, and their willingness to stay by our side despite not understanding most of what we say or do.
Normally, when dogs are involved in theatrical productions, their roles are carefully scripted and their behaviors are thoroughly rehearsed. Burke wanted something that felt more natural and spontaneous for Comfort Dogs.
“I didn’t want trained dogs doing things because they had to. That’s not what we were trying to do,” Burke explained. “The idea was to create an environment where the dogs could do anything they wanted, and no one would tell them not to be a dog.”
The result was about an hour of organic interaction between human and canine actors that complemented the play’s monologues and songs. The people also acted like dogs, sniffing, howling and scratching, while the three canine stars were free to be themselves. The dogs’ unscripted roles also meant that each show was unique. It felt like canine improv.
Working with animals, especially in an unscripted setting, presents logistical challenges—among them, finding the ideal performance space. An early iteration that enclosed the dogs on stage, per the original theater’s requirements, took away from the show’s free spirit. The space at JACK allowed Comfort Dogs to unfold as Burke had originally envisioned, showcasing the dogs’ natural behavior.
The three canine actors, each a different breed, size and personality, complemented each other as well, although they were primarily chosen because they were familiar with all of the people on stage. Bronco is Burke’s dog; Gypsy is bass player Paul Ketchum’s pup; and Bluet, whom Burke rescued from a local park, now lives with a friend. The actors’ existing relationships with the dogs grew as they worked on the play together.
It will also come as no surprise to any dog lover that the human actors learned a lot from being on stage with their canine counterparts.
“When you’re an actor, you always talk about ‘being present’ on stage,” says Burke. “With the dogs, they’re present all the time. It was certainly exciting to see.”
Now that Comfort Dogs has closed, the director hopes to work on a longer piece that incorporates more dogs. One of his ideas is to partner with a local shelter so that audience members could adopt the canine actors, making the play even more immersive.
It was refreshing to see Comfort Dogs explore canine theater in this manner, and I look forward to Burke’s next work. Incorporating shelter pups would be an exciting way to give back to dogs, who give us so much.
News: Karen B. London
A world gone mad
The photographs of dog shadows by Thomas Roma capture the form and motion of dogs in a way that pictures of their actual bodies don’t. Roma went to a local dog park in Brooklyn almost daily for years to photograph shadows of dogs. By shooting from a different perspective (quite literally, as his camera was mounted on a seven-foot pole) he revealed something quite different. These dogs have a beauty that comes from the simplicity of their forms.
In Roma’s photos, the shadows both look like the dogs who cast them and appear very different. They are distorted and yet reveal the true essence of the dog form, too. It’s unlikely that anyone would view these photos and not think of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave, in which people trapped in a cave mistake shadows projected onto the wall of the cave for reality because they are unable to see anything but these shadows.
The photographer himself has said that the shadows and their photographs remind him of cave paintings. He loved the dusty pebbled ground and the way it was fresh and new each day. He continued to photograph dogs at the park until the city renovated it and changed the surface.
Roma calls his dog shadow photographs “Mondo Cane” which is Italian for “Dog World” but is also an idiomatic expression meaning “A World Gone Mad.” These photographs have been exhibited in New York, Rome and Tokyo and sold all around the globe.
Who’s inspired to turn their own lens to the shadows of our dogs?
Bark welcomes the news of an entertaining auction at Christie’s titled Best in Show which features an array of animal-inspired works by the master of Pop Art, Andy Warhol. The upcoming online only sale includes over 100 lots of silver gelatin prints, Polaroids, screenprints and drawings by Warhol. It’s a rare glimpse of the art and ephemera that inspired Andy’s life, and reflects his love of animals—cats, horses, cows, birds, and, of course, dogs. Enjoy the online catalog, bidding continues until May 5, 2015.
News: Karen B. London
The charm of dogs in daily life
I love few things more than seeing a dog lying on a rug in front of the fire. This is due in part, perhaps, to my perspective as a canine behaviorist. While most people simply see a dog relaxing on a rug, I see a dog who is resting on the rug rather than chewing on it. That automatically puts the scene on my “things of beauty” list.
Apart from my own issues with, well, canine issues, most dog lovers find the scene appealing as well. It ranks right up there with a dog physically preventing a toddler from going in the street, playing happily with a group of children or comforting a grieving person of any age by gently resting the head in that person’s lap. Any time people and dogs are spending time together as companions, I’m likely to observe the scene and find it endearing.
There is no end to the situations in which I find charm as well as joy in the actions or poses of dogs. I suppose I have been influenced by the work of Norman Rockwell, whose art captures the appeal of American life, including dogs, better than anyone ever has. Rockwell was well known for including dogs in his paintings and understanding the happiness people felt when seeing images of all kinds of dogs portrayed as a part of daily life.
His work is so well known that to describe something as a “Norman Rockwell moment” is instantly understandable to most people as a situation (often in a small town) that provides suitable material for one of his paintings. What’s your favorite “Norman Rockwell moment” with your own dog?
Ruth Silverman is a treasure. She combines a curator’s eye for fine photography with a lifelong passion for dogs. It has resulted in two seminal books The Dog: 100 Years of Classic Photography and The Dog Observed, numerous photo exhibits and a personal collection that rivals many museums. The Bark crossed paths with Ruth many years ago, and she has been an invaluable advisor to our efforts on many fronts, introducing us to a host of great photographers and art of all kinds that have graced our pages. Ruth is one of those people who seem to know everyone, after having been a curator for the International Center of Photography in New York, as well as a successful photojournalist. She takes delight in connecting creative parties, be it in art, writing or publishing—Ruth is a cultural matchmaker.
Visiting Ruth in her home in Berkeley is like a trip to gallery row. Every wall, shelf and corner is filled with fine prints, paintings and photographs … a framed André Kertész, a William Wegman Polaroid, a classic Nicholas Nixon. We were excited to hear that Ruth has donated a good portion of her collection to raise money to help the dogs she so dearly loves. Friends have organized a month-long online auction to benefit both the SPCA’s “Take Your Best Shot” program, which increases the adoption rate in high‐kill, low-income shelters by presenting quality, attractive portraits of available pets to potential adopters, and the HSUS’ “Pets for Life” program, which addresses the need for spay and neuter services in underserved communities.
The appropriately named “Good Dog Art Exhibition and Silent Auction” can be viewed online at http://tinyurl.com/GoodDogArt through February 26, 2015. It’s a wonderful opportunity to acquire first-rate photography and art while helping animals in need and the programs that serve them. And if you happen to be in the Bay Area this month, you can view the art in person at two venues—Wag Hotels and San Francisco SPCA. A special Good Dog Art Party is being held at Wag Hotels on the closing night of the auction, February 26. Tickets can be purchased at the URL above. We hope you’ll expand your art collection and help the dogs!
News: Guest Posts
John Dolan and his dog George
Coming home a little earlier from nights out; waking up with the sun to get in that daily walk; adding a new vacuum to the top of your birthday wish list—things have a tendency to change when you bring a dog into your life. London based artist, John Dolan, was no exception to this rule. We recently read about Dolan and his dog, George, in an interview published by the Guardian earlier this month, and we were instantly enamored with the duo.
Dolan, struggled with poverty, addiction and homelessness for most of his adult life, then, one day in 2009, a young homeless couple, about to move into an apartment, gave him George. And then things began to happen...
The Guardian writes:
Dolan was terrified to be entrusted with George, his first ever responsibility. "How was I going to cope with him? I couldn't even cope with myself," he says. But he'd loved the family dog, Butch, as a boy, and he noticed how George always looked him in the eye when he talked. They bonded and Dolan had a stark realisation: if he went to prison again, he would lose George. So he gave up crime. "It was only because I had the animal and he's a responsibility," he says, stroking George. "He's like my child in a sense and I feel obliged to keep a roof over his head and keep him warm."
In 2009, in an attempt to make an honest living, John turned to selling sketches of George to passers-by on the street for about $30 each. A few years later, his drawings were published in Shoreditch Unbound, a limited edition book showcasing East London's creative culture. After that, commissions started rolling in, including a request from gallery director, Richard Howard-Griffin. This is when his fledgling career as a working artist took off.
John now has a solo show under his belt (which happened to be a sell-out) and another just opened; he has collaborated with many high-profile street artists, including ROA, Stik and Tierry Noir; he has written a book about his life with George (an experience he likened to therapy), and, later this year, he'll cross the pond for a third solo show in Los Angeles.
While John's life has seen a dramatic turn-around in the past few years, there is one thing that remains constant—George, the staffy-bull who saved him.
Again, from the Guardian:
"I feel like he's a guardian angel. If it hadn't been for him I'd have never picked up my pen," he says, stroking his companion.
Click HERE to see more of John Dolan's work. Keep up with John and George on Facebook.
Blanton Museum of Art collects more than 160 works
A rich and ambitious exploration of our ancient relationships with dogs and cats, a new exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art collects more than 160 works by some of art’s landmark names— among them, Dürer, Fragonard, Blake, Goya, Gauguin, Hiroaki, Picasso, Cartier-Bresson, Hopper, Bourgeois and Wegman. “In the Company of Cats and Dogs” explores its subject across 33 centuries, drawing on insights from both science and the humanities to plumb the depths of this complex partnership.
Blanton Museum of Art
Interview with the venerable New Yorker cartoonist
Charles Barsotti has been staff cartoonist at The New Yorker since 1970, and for more than three decades, has been entertaining us with his distinctive rounded pups (one of whom
he’s dubbed Buster). Rendered in deceptively simple lines, his cartoon dogs engage in utterly human tasks, and their fans are legion—one of them, Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, told him in a letter that he hoped someone would collect all of Barsotti’s “little dog cartoons” in a book one day. And now, with the release of They Moved My Bowl, they have. We were pleased that Mr. Barsotti agreed to be interviewed—like his cartoon punch lines, his answers to our questions were short, witty and to the point.
Bark: What makes a good dog cartoon?
B: What is it about dogs going about human tasks that’s so funny?
B: We see that you dedicated your new book, They Moved My Bowl, to the memory of Jiggs, “the world’s greatest dog.” Can you tell us about Jiggs?
B: Tell us about your two dogs, Chloe and Buster.
B: Can you talk about your drawing style? It’s so simple but perfect.
B: Your cartoons are sweet and smart but never syrupy or corny—no mean feat when it comes to dog cartoons. How do you manage that?
B: Tell us about your idea of dog heaven.
See Charles Barsotti's obit published on June 20, 2014
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