Since 1986, Nepal has been a respite for Michelle Page, a former assistant film editor who lives in Santa Monica, Calif. The country’s friendly residents and low cost of living made it an attractive escape after she had spent countless 14-hour days in a dark room working on movie projects such as Spiderman II.
But in 2007, just as her own job security was starting to wane, Page noticed a similar trend on the streets of Kathmandu. “There used to be these beautiful hand-painted signs everywhere,” recalls Page. “Then suddenly, all the new signs seemed to be digitally printed on vinyl.” Hoping to help keep traditional artists employed, Page developed an art program inspired by her favorite Nepalese signs: the ubiquitous “Beware of Dog” warnings decorating gates throughout Kathmandu. Painted in colorful enamel, the metal signs often feature a German Shepherd, but also many other breeds that obviously live at the home or business in question —Beagle, Dachshund or Dalmatian. Page has documented 360 examples during her vacations.
Since opening Nepal Dogs in 2007, Page has visited Nepal twice a year— a 60-hour round-trip commute—to connect U.S. pet owners with signboard artists who need work. Armed with photos customers have given her of their dogs, she spends six hours a day traveling in the sardine-can confines of minibuses to various painters’ studios, where she hand-delivers the photos for transformation into signs announcing “Danger Dog,” “Zen Dog” or whatever the customer prefers in both Nepali script and English.
To date, Page has overseen the creation of 2,700 pieces by 58 artists, who set their own prices for the work they craft for this unexpected U.S. audience. “There’s a big well of talent, and arranging the paintings is more fun than you can imagine,” says Page. “The artists are thrilled because they get to paint. They take it very seriously.” For each commission, Page hires three different artists. Although she tries to accommodate people who request a specific painter (“They do move around a lot”), she usually gives the portrait to whichever signboard artists she “would like to see do that dog.”
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“Some artists do innovative lettering, while others do really well with hair or particular facial expressions,” Page explains. A handful of artists can work from “problem pictures,” ones in which the only shot of a deceased pet is out of focus or has “green eye” from the camera’s flash.
Once the signboards are complete, Page emails digital images to the customer, who can buy one ($250) or as many as they like—or none if they feel the painter missed the mark. Page then sells the other versions through her website, galleries and museum shops.
Narrowing the choice to only one proved impossible for Kristin Anderson of Malden, Mass. “Charles’ eyes are just perfect in one painting. It really captures his expression,” says Anderson, who commissioned a painting of her friend’s Cocker Spaniel as a wedding present this spring and ended up buying two signs. “We got a real rendition of Charles Barkley.”