This is Ruger.
He is deeply loved by his family. His life-sized portrait hangs in the bedroom, right over the place where he slept on the floor. It's an homage to his spot.
It's a spot that has been empty since Ruger died.
Ruger was a rule follower. A tattle tale for his Dane sister. He reserved his goofiness for those with whom he was supremely comfortable, and then he'd roll on his back and smile with his entire body. He had zoomies, as Danes do. He was gentle and kind, a bit wry with his humor.
Ruger had depth. He had a smoldering intensity and a connection to his person that defied words. And continues to defy words (hence art). You can see a hint of it here in his portrait.
It's tissue time.
Ruger's person is a kindred human to me and one who appreciates photography. She shared dozens of images of Ruger. When we initially talked about the image to inspire his portrait, she wanted to see him lying on his back with his jowls giving up the fight against gravity in that most undignified and totally joyful pose. She wanted to see that version of Ruger.
I could tell by the way she paused as she scrolled through her photographs that the Ruger you see here was the Ruger she needed. I mentioned that she seemed to have a special connection with this moment and it might be one to honor in a painting.
We both cried when she told me that this photograph is from the day before Ruger died. She asked him to go outside with her for a few photographs because she knew his death was coming, and this is what he gave her. The magnificant, stunning gift of his total attention, admiration, belief in her beauty and worth, and trust.
Honestly, I struggle with this portrait sometimes because it feels so intimate. It's like I shouldn't be privy to this moment. I shouldn't be allowed to see this connection because it is deeply personal and private.
As big as Ruger was in life, he is much bigger in death. Expansive, really. He's not there and yet he is. I can't tell you how Ruger's people feel about that statement - that's just me talking.
When I first met Ruger's family after many virtual exchanges, I was in their home for four hours. Four hours! Just hanging out and talking, looking at photographs, stroking cats and scratching a very large Daneish bottom. I could feel him in the house. I could see him in his person.
I didn't meet Ruger in life, and yet I feel like we are old friends. That may be why he was so comfortable giving me his honest opinion about his portrait as I was working on it.
Ruger's person gave me a budget window to work in and I proposed a watercolor sketch. It would be nice and light with a sketch-style watercolor wash and ink rather than a detailed watercolor portrait. It seemed to suit him. I had done all the ink work and was starting on the watercolor wash (which left areas of white on the paper where Ruger wasn't white).
"No. I don't like this. I don't want white spaces," I heard someone say.
I kept working.
"I AM FULL OF COLOR!" he shouted. "Please fill me in."
And so Ruger cleverly negotiated a full watercolor portrait at a sketch watercolor price. I don't think I'll ever forget that experience.
There is so much to love about Ruger. I love how connected to him his family remains. I adore how much they embrace him in the way he is now, even if it isn't a physical way. When they tell stories about him, he is alive again.
It is equally magical and brutal to realize how quickly he can return and and how quickly parts of him fade. This connection is one they will always keep.
It’s just a pill. One of countless pills Rhys took in his lifetime.
Have you ever administered oral medication to a dog with enormous jowls? They have so many places to hide pills. In our family, residents have a history of pocketing those pills in their mouths and depositing them between sofa cushions, into blankets, or on the floor in the corner of a room when I am not looking. It's a proud tradition.
I found this pill in July 2018. Rhys died in February 2018.
It was beneath the sofa he loved. His sofa that we got just for him, because our previous sofas had cushions that were a touch too high for him to climb onto safely as he aged. His sofa that we had to part with because it was too sad to have it in the house without him on it.
Beneath the sofa. How in the world did he do that?
On a day I was congratulating myself for letting go of the stuff that reminded me of him and resting instead in my memories and art, I found this pill on the floor. We had just moved the sofa to get it out of the house.
It was a vicious attack of Grief. I had no defense, and I didn't try. I let Grief come and sit on my chest, pull my hair, scratch my face, punch me in the gut, and club my legs out from beneath me. I sobbed. I wailed.
Grief eventually picked me up off the floor and directed me to look at Rhys' painting hanging just to the side of the sofa. Grief whispered that she always comes in love.
Grief and I are kinda tight. I love that she gets me. I love that she's honest.
I saw this pill and thought of all the caregiving. I thought of watching him age and seeing his physical capabilities diminish. I marveled as his capacity to love continued to grow. I thought of the physical pain he must have endured as the trappings of age settled in his body, and how graciously he adjusted to that.
Even if he didn't care for his medicine.
I thought of how far we had come together. I remembered the first day we met, and the day I returned to take him home. I remember the trip to the ocean beach. I remember how he would run down the stairs and leap into the truck when he saw me loading stuff that looked like things we might take on vacation. I remember how he ran like silk - strong and fluid.
I remember his grunts as he stretched and plunked his massive head into my lap. I remember the black speckles on his white chest and belly. I remember every little thing.
This pill reminded me that I am afraid to forget.
This is why I tell stories. This is why I make art.
The connection I have through this object, this pill, floods me with all of this to the point I break down because I cannot hold any more. When I can translate this into art, I can give myself permission to let go of the pills and the blankets and the chewed up toys. I can keep the photographs of those things. I can have these moments as rich tapestries of love, growth, and adventure on my walls, where all the stories come at me when I give myself the time to look and feel.
That's why I make art for you. I know you have the equal to this pill. I don't expect you to keep it or get rid of it. I hope you'll do what feels right when it feels right. In the interim, I'll help you make art that connects you to everything you access when you hold your pill.
Art can do that.
By the way, this pill is still in my cabinet. I'm not ready. And I'm okay with that.
Conan is our third Dane. He was born in 2004 and died in 2014. This photo is from 2009 (in the ancient times I wore 3" heels and pencil skirts everywhere).
I talk about him in the present tense often because he's still a part of our family and my life. Just because I don't see him lounging in his chair doesn't mean he isn't here.
I adopted Conan thinking that he would ease the trauma of Vaughn's death (Vaughn is our first Dane and my heart dog). Vaughn died in 2007, and I was attached to the idea that Conan could be just like him.
Bwah ha ha ha ha!
It never works out that way, does it?
Vaughn was small. Conan was massive. Vaughn was gentle and composed. Conan was intense and scattered. Vaughn was kind and attentive. Conan was kind and attentive.
Each animal in my family has a different place in my heart, in an entirely different way. Conan wasn't like Vaughn, not really. He was his own kind of excited hopping, squeaking, undignified brute. He did things Vaughn never would have considered.
Comparing them doesn't do me any favors because they are all just right as is.
I met a new person this week who asked me about my license plate as we walked to our vehicles. My license plate is DANEMOM.
Most people think that I have a little boy whose name is Dane. You know better. I drive a 3/4 ton Suburban, and I bought it to haul three Danes and a horse trailer.
Anyway, so this new person in my life squealed and asked, "Oh, so you have great Danes?"
"Yes, we have four in our family," I replied. I was thrilled that she was excited about it.
Usually when people ask me if I have any dogs, I say no. When I go home, there is no parade of enormous nostrils mashed against the window, fogging it with steamy anticipation. No one barks to announce my arrival. I have less laundry to wash because I don't have to launder dog beds and blankets twice each week. There is no gigantic stock pot of food cooking on the stove that will feed 500 pounds of dog for four days. When I pick up my keys, no one comes running. There is plenty of room on the sofa now, and I haven't wiped slobber off the floor, walls, and ceiling (yes, really) in more than a year.
There is no dog in our home and there are four dogs in our home.
I thought about all the times I've worked with families that have buried children and how they answer the awkward question of "So, how many kids do you have?" They always count their dead children. Always. Death doesn't remove them from their families. They don't always say that number out loud because they get tired of the awkward silences, but they count all of their children.
In no way do I compare the animals in our family to children, and I also do not compare our losses with anyone else's. I realized, though, when I told this person that we had four Danes in our family that I was being completely honest. That it was okay for me to count them. Out loud. Because they are family, because they have shaped me, and because I carry them forward with me every day.
It is with mixed feelings I announce Wean's retirement.
After years of working alongside me, both in photography and paint, it is time for him to begin his next set of adventures. Those are primarily sleeping, weighing down my lap, and eating.
I'll miss being with him in the office.
We've joked about his declining work ethic. He hasn't been able to jump on my desk in ages. I often lift him into my lap because he isn't steady enough to get there on his own without removing skin from my thighs. He sleeps in. He's late for meetings.
He still shows up, though, and that means a lot to me. It's time for him to enjoy his life in a new way.
This month Wean turned 16. He's also been showing signs of cognitive decline, and it's happening faster than we expected. He lives with confusion and more intense needs for comfort and connection than he's had before (which is significant because his previous needs were already exceptional). We live with the odd vocalizations we refer to as meowling and the uncertainty of knowing when and where we might next discover cat vomit.
Wean is so much more than an office cat. He's the one I talk through my work with when I feel stuck. He assures me that things will always work out, even if it doesn't feel that way. He helps me feel my grief, for our family as well as the families I serve. He is never far away from me.
I could not ask for a better companion and partner in this journey. While I am broken up about doing this without him, I know it's time for him to sleep more and check in with me less.
He has been my assistant for years. It's my turn to serve him.
Dexter is one of 100 Stories.
He and his person met on a blind date, as she called it. He was on Petfinder looking for a family and had no profile photo. Although he was only six months old, he had lived most of his life in a backyard.
She took him home; they became family.
This is the part where you may want to have tissues handy.
In Dexter's lifetime he experienced many health challenges, and when he was four he died from an especially severe case of pneumonia.
She credits Dexter for the valuable lessons she learned while they lived together. Family is everything. A peaceful warrior is the most fierce. Joy matters. Humor and grace are strengths, not weaknesses.
I have the honor of listening to dozens of these stories every year, and I marvel at the intensity and purity of these relationships. This is an incredible love.
Dexter's poem was especially personal and powerful (I cry every time I read it, but that's not saying much). Like most of the other poems from 100 Stories, it is deeply personal and it doesn’t feel right to share it.
Dexter was a part of the 100 Stories project, which was a limited edition offer that ended January 2019. Pop art remains available in wall art sizes, and poetry is also available.
Care to guess how many times in a week I hear people say that they'd love to be able to do what I do?
Photography is a skill that can be learned. At some point, even people that have a knack for it work on improving their abilities when they adopt it as a profession.
Honestly, photography is the easiest part of a photography business. Marketing, service, all the legal stuff . . . those are the things that tend to be most challenging. They are also learned skills.
I am opening applications for mentorship in 2019 because I want to help other people create incredible lives for themselves through photography. Words cannot describe how thankful I am to have created this business for myself and my family. I went from being "disabled" from a chronic illness to thriving because I gave myself the freedom to make this work.
It requires consistent, focused work. You'll have to do things that might be uncomfortable. It can take a while before you see your seeds sprout. The ultimate outcome is being able to give people the gift of meaningful connections to their memories and love and support yourself at the same time.
Honestly, how does life get better than that? And hanging out with animals and their people (with whom I share a sacred language and connection) . . . sign me up!
You really can do this. Just think about it for a bit. If you could trade your job that you like some days for one that made you excited to get out of bed every day, would you?
Applications are open for mentorship in 2019. The terms are flexible - we'll talk about what you want to make happen and design something to support that growth that also sticks within your budget. I promise it will be fun, because when it stops being fun you'll stop doing the work. And if you are local, you'll have the opportunity to apprentice with me on some of my sessions.
I floundered for seven years after I started by first photography business to make this a full-time career. I was doing so many things I thought were helpful and really weren't. If this is the way you want to go, I want to help you get there in less than seven years. Like, in one year or less. Please let my copious mistakes be your guide. :D
You can find the application online (https://bit.ly/2QzQGkI), and of course you are welcome to send me a message or leave comments here with any questions you have.
Occasionally I "shop" for photographers in the area to find others I would recommend to families. I may not be the right choice for a variety of reasons, and when we figure that out I want to be ready with a recommendation or two of a photographer I think would be a great match.
I noticed a pattern the last time I shopped online: in each of the 14 websites I visited, the photographer promised to "capture the personality" of you pet or something that sounds a lot like that.
A good photographer reflects the personality and mood of the subject. I want to see personality.
I like that. I want to see personality. I also want to see more than personality.
I'm after soul, not personality.
I want the story. I want to feel like I am diving into the world of whoever is in front of the lens. I want to see personality, sure. That's just the beginning.
I want to feel something. When I look at the photograph later, I want to have a visceral reaction of feeling about the animal. More importantly, I want you to see your cat in print and feel her in the room with you, even if she isn't. I want you to look at the photograph of your dog and feel the essence of him.
I can't do any of that if I focus on personality. My goal is beyond that.
When I read a book or watch a movie, I want to follow the hero's story. There is a protagonist I am rooting for, and she is on a journey. An author or screenwriter or director that concentrated on making her personality known page by page or scene by scene would have something that almost no one wants to read or watch. The hero is more than personality. She has values. She has history. She has dreams and quirks. She has a core that wraps all of that up and makes her who she is. If an author, screenwriter, or director can convince me that I know the hero, I'm all in. That's the kind of experience I want, because if I'm going to tag along on the journey, I want to be invested in it.
Your animal is the hero in his own story. He's had ups and downs. He's fought battles and learned lessons. His personality comes through in all of that, and yet it's the deeper stuff that shows who he is while he is on his hero's journey that endears you.
You know every little thing about him. He deserves to be represented as more than personality. He deserves to have his story told, and you deserve to see it in a way that's going to put him right there beside you.
At the beginning of each year, I review the prior year and look for patterns. I revisit my lessons. I see where I have grown and where I could use help. I also do this for every quarter, month, week, and day.
Since 2014 I've been representing the year past with one photograph, along with the story that goes along with it. Every year brings new challenges with this because there are so many gorgeous, connected, life- and love-affirming photographs I have the good fortune to create.
For 2018, this was pretty easy. Despite 2018 being the year I cried the most at work; despite 2018 being the year I connected with more families than I ever have for senior and end-of-life photography; despite 2018 being my best year in terms of skill and ability with a camera . . . it simply comes down to feeling.
My photography students hear me tell them over and over again that photography is more about connection and intention than gear and technical skill. The families I sit down with to plan photographs remark that one of the first things I ask them is "How do you want to feel when you see these photographs?"
This photograph may not mean much to you, and that's okay. I created it for me.
It's dark. The details are hard to see. Someone who didn't know this scene might have to search for what is important.
It's all right there in the middle.
Rhys and I are snuggled on his sofa. This was the week before he died; four days before I began my vigil with him.
Of all the places in our home, this is where Rhys wanted to be. He could see into the kitchen. He could see the front door. He could see who was going upstairs or coming downstairs. He could see the front yard. I have dozens of photographs of Rhys in various stages of rest on the sofa, often tucked under a blanket with his head propped on a pillow.
On this day, I pulled out my camera and tripod, set up my remote shutter release, and photographed us as I told Rhys all of the things I wanted to say. I thanked him for being in our family. I apologized for so many, many things. I marveled at how he changed our lives and would continue to do so. I told him I loved him.
I cried. I hugged. I sniffled. I listened. Oh, listening to his heart - his gentle, erratic heart that was days away from stopping - was glorious. Even with my head on his hip I could hear it.
I felt him. I smelled him. I soaked in every bit of him I could, knowing that this might be one of the last quiet opportunities for this kind of connection.
This is my photograph of the year for 2018 because it is the most impactful for me. I see this and the tears start right away. I usually need to sit down. The emotions I experience are so overwhelming I feel as though I am in this moment again in all the best ways.
That's what photography is meant to do.
You and I, we are lovers. We are givers. We are also the people most likely to be behind the camera rather than in front of it.
There are very few photographs in my collection where I am in the frame. Almost all are from professional photographers I hired for annual family portraits, and a few are from my husband. I knew I had the tools to do something different, and I knew what I wanted to see and how I wanted to feel. I knew I wanted to see me in it, because this love story between Rhys and I is something I've never seen in the third person.
Friend, do not write yourself out of your own history. Be seen. I can promise you that when you look back on these photographs later you might roll your eyes about your wardrobe choices or hairstyle; what you are going to see and feel is the connection you had in that moment. As the years go by and it seems harder and harder to access that connection, you will thank your lucky stars you have photographs to help plug you back in.
I'm counting on it.
What do you do for the dog who has everything?
Design a t-shirt, of course.
While Scoutie the cockapoo wasn't the recipient of this t-shirt design, I like to think he was pleased to see himself in this way. It's like he has a campaign or his own private brand of awesome.
Which, from what I learned about him, seems completely accurate.
Scoutie's human asked me to come up with art for a shirt so she could outfit every member of her family (except Scoutie - he did not receive a shirt). She wanted her family to feel his vibe when wearing their shirts, even when Scoutie wasn't around.
One of the first things she said to me was that he was part king and part clown. What a description! It felt to me like he needed his own brand. He wanted to be recognizable. He wanted to be like the dog version of Coca Cola or Nike. And as dignified and regal as he can be, he's also goofy and a bit rough around the edges.
Viola! A vintage design for his old soul that is simple and breaks down the essentials. I think that's what he would do for himself had he design skills and opposable thumbs. I was on my way to distressing this design for him when he said, "Stop! I like it tidy."
Honestly, what could be better than art you can wear?
If a t-shirt or other logo-like design is just what you need to honor your animal family, please send me an email or a message through Facebook @slobberedlens.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (four Danes, one cat, and one horse are no longer walking this earth). Here I'll share stories of my adventures in grief photography for companion animals, my own grief journey, and thoughts on caregiving.