New York, New York

Canine to Five

Every dog has its day, but as the first to join New York’s elite National Arts Club, Tillie the artistic Jack Russell terrier seems to be having quite a few.

At first, Tillamook “Tillie” Cheddar seemed like an average Jack Russell terrier. Our relationship was strictly professional. As a young writer in New York, I’d taken lots of jobs to make rent: copyedited mutual funds guidebooks, transcribed Fox News reports. One data-entry job on Wall Street was so insipid I ate dry cocoa mix just to stay awake. Now I was a professional dog walker. After a few strolls with Tillie, I noticed her personality was different than the other dogs. She was pensive and calm. She had a mood. I soon learned that, like me, Tillie was an artist, though a gainfully employed one, with a portfolio of worldwide exhibitions.

Her poop that I scooped was worth more than my monthly salary—Tillie’s paintings have sold for as much as $2,000 apiece. She had recently been invited to join New York’s elite National Arts Club. By accepting the invitation, Tillie became the first canine painter to gain membership in a club known for being exclusive, though at the same time open-minded: The NAC has welcomed women since it was founded in 1898, and minorities since the civil rights era. But to include dogs?

“We’re a dog-friendly club and never felt that artistic ability was exclusive. Why wouldn’t we extend the invitation across the species?” said club President O. Aldon James, Jr.

Tillie and her artwork tantalized James, a slightly unconventional, fast-talking, bowtie-clad art enthusiast. He and his sidekick twin brother once hosted a parrot-in-residence, and there’s been talk of opening a studio space at the NAC for animal artists. As I listened to James, I thought, here I was, balancing two jobs and four leashed mutts at a time, barely able to eat, and there was Tillie, a forward-leaning canine that was scratching away art for the public to snatch up like chickens going after a Junebug. I wanted to ask James about this being ridiculous, but he was supercilious, and intimidating.

I received an invitation to attend a small reception in honor of Tillie’s inauguration. I resisted the urge to use it as a pooper-scooper.Depending on whom you ask, Tillie is either a Basquiat or a Benji. Time Out New York called Tillie’s work “a masterpiece of conceptualism,” while The Village Voice called her “a sham.” James Gardner of the New York Post said, “[Because of Tillie] I’ve had to rethink my most basic assumptions about art and life.” Tillie works with a color transfer technique. With the assistance of Bowman, she scratches away at touch-sensitive pigment-coated vellum attached to a sheet of lithograph paper backed by mat board. Once the board is prepared for her, she runs wild, licking and scratching and barking and biting, sometimes to the point of destroying her paintings.

“I’ve heard human artists being called a sham, or a fad, or a fake,” said James, insisting that Tillie’s admission into the club later this month is no public relations stunt. “Tillie is possessed. It’s part of her nature to go into creative mode. And the more you get into her, the more you understand it. When you see her at it, there’s a passion and a veracity that goes beyond being trained. It’s part of her soul.”

As Tillie’s owner, F. Bowman Hastie III, tells it, Tillie’s first artistic moment occurred when she was five months old. Hastie was sitting on his couch, writing on a legal pad, when Tillie jumped on his lap and started frantically clawing at the paper. Being an artist himself, Bowman interpreted this as an act of expression and decided to record her markings by covering the notepad with a piece of carbon paper. The result was Tillie’s first piece of art, “Untitled No. 1,”—and the birth of Tillie’s career as a canine artist.

I’ve seen Tillie’s paintings hanging on the walls of her home—vivid strokes that posses a frantic and primal energy. Tillie’s work is evocative of Jackson Pollock or Franz Kline, though her process is more primitive. Sometimes Tillie is so involved in her work she shreds it with her teeth. Did Pollock ever go that deep?

Soon after Tillie joined the NAC, I received an invitation to attend a small reception at the National Arts Club in honor of Tillie’s inauguration and her recently released biography, Portrait of the Dog as a Young Artist: Art from Scratch, by the World’s Preeminent Canine Painter. Holding the postcard, I resisted the urge to use it a pooper-scooper, as my envy was eclipsed by a new understanding and acceptance. Of course, Tillie’s claim to fame has been bolstered by more than just the claw marks. The combo of fortuitous social contacts and the valor of art dealers pushed her to the top, but Tillie’s work wasn’t a sham; it was, in an unexpected way, a bit of an inspiration.

Jack Russell terriers are bred to be working dogs. They need a mission and a job, and if they aren’t given one, they create something to fill the void. Tillie wasn’t a seeing-eye dog and far from a drug-sniffer, so perhaps her frenetic scratching came from this desire to produce, to have a purpose. When her paintings were taken away, Tillie moved on. Perhaps that is what art is—the expression of impulse, not a final result or a payoff. With the purposeful intensity of a Jack Russell terrier, a Tillie, I’ll continue to scratch away at writing. The process gives purpose, I read in her reticent brown eyes, as they looked right past me.

Before moving to Brooklyn, Mira Ptacin had a penchant for taking residence in locations beginning with the letter “M”: A Michigan native, Mira worked as an archaeologist in Mongolia, then lived in Maine where she attended the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. She plans on sticking around Brooklyn for some time and hopes to publish a book of her dog-walking memoirs. More by Mira Ptacin