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Pet project: Spokane painter memorializes animals for grieving families

As a form of therapy following a stroke, Spokane artist Pat Adams has oil-painted scenics and portraits of family members at her kitchen table for more than 30 years. But after the death of her beloved dog Sage, Adams took her painting in a new direction. (Colin Mulvany)
As a form of therapy following a stroke, Spokane artist Pat Adams has oil-painted scenics and portraits of family members at her kitchen table for more than 30 years. But after the death of her beloved dog Sage, Adams took her painting in a new direction. (Colin Mulvany)

They say all dogs go to heaven. In  the Inland Northwest, the most special of our canine companions also make it to Pat Adams’ canvas.

Adams is a Spokane painter with a giving heart who memorializes cherished dogs on canvas, capturing their big eyes, perked ears and slobbery grins to bring comfort and peace to grieving pet owners. She also paints the occasional cat, bird and most recently a pet turtle.

“This one is for my vet’s father,” Adams said one April morning while using a small brush to outline a handsome tan dog face on a black canvas. She dipped the brush in a dark chestnut paint to draw the tip of the floppy ear.

Adams creates her paintings at an easel set up on her kitchen table, a thin plastic cover drapes over the wood and the air smells a mix of coffee and oils. She often paints in the quiet of the night, when her husband and 44-year-old son – who has Down syndrome – are in bed in their South Hill home. Sometimes her cat sits on the table and watches.

Adams talks to the dogs as she paints – almost always from a photo downloaded from a cellphone. Sometimes she cries, thinking of the great loss for people.

A self-proclaimed softy, Adams admits her emotions often overcome her, but at age 67 she doesn’t care. It’s her way. Her freedom. Her sanity.

Dabbing brown along the dog’s nose, she continued talking about her veterinarian’s father who recently lost his dog. Adams doesn’t know the details – how it died, its name, its breed or where the owner lives. It doesn’t matter. All that’s important to her is that she captures the animal’s spirit to help the human remember and grieve.

“He can’t seem to get on his feet,” Adams said. “I think this will help him feel like (the dog) is home now. I know it’s dumb but ashes don’t do it for me.”

She said the painting gives the grieving owner something to look at and something to talk to. Closure. To her, it’s a lot more intimate and appropriate than a decorated box full of ashes. She thinks the paintings are especially important to the elderly, who know they likely won’t have another pet.

The memorial paintings are gifts. Adams doesn’t want the responsibility or hassle that comes with charging money. She rarely meets the recipients, either having the paintings delivered by her children or putting them in the mail.

Adams is timid by nature and insecure for a wife who raised four children and went back to school for nursing in her 40s. She’s a middle child and a twin. She laughs that her sister got the crooked teeth and she got the crooked eyes.

Her eye problems give her paintings their own character, a touch of crookedness. Her eyes are beautiful – a green hazel – but they don’t work together. Most people don’t notice because Adams has trained herself to looking at their lips, making it appear she’s looking them in the eye.

This is another reason she doesn’t charge for her paintings. She fears rejection or requests to straighten a nose or an ear in the paintings. The bravest of her clients, like her veterinarian, have asked for slight revisions but Adams shrugs the imperfections off as her creative license. These are paintings, not photographs.

In her 40s, the stress of raising four children, especially one who needed nearly full-time care, caused her to have a minor stroke. Her doctor ordered Adams to paint as a way to relax. She took art classes and painted landscapes and still lifes, especially enjoying ghost towns because nothing in a dilapidated building is straight.

Adams recommends that everyone paint to find their own freedom and creativity.

“When people get old they sit in their chair and watch Fox,” she said. “They really should sit and paint. You can do it bad or good. It really doesn’t matter. You’re being creative and that’s important to all of us.”

Adams’ animal portraits didn’t happen until her son’s dog, Sage, died. JP Adams got Sage while working at the North Pole as firefighter for the U.S. Air Force. Sage liked the fire station life and drinking beer. But when the son returned to Spokane, Sage roomed with Adams and her husband.

Funny thing – Adams didn’t like dogs. As a toddler, the family’s cocker spaniel attacked her, ripping open her throat, after she attempted to ride the dog like a horse. Adams feared dogs until Sage loped into her kitchen and never left until she died two years later.

Adams felt an overwhelming need to paint the 100-pound, barrel-chested, big-headed, stub-tailed black Labrador/Rottweiler mix. Adams still cries when she talks about Sage. That initial dog portrait led to hundreds of others.

People usually learn of Adams through word-of-mouth or she reaches out to owners whose pet has died in a tragic enough way to make the news. That’s how Adams connected with Spokesman-Review photographer Dan Pelle, whose dog, Koko, was attacked and killed by two pit bulls in December. After seeing news reports, Adams was compelled to paint Koko, the 11-year-old Australian kelpie-spaniel mix the Pelle family adopted when she was a pup.

Adams recently delivered the painting of Koko to the Pelles’ home. Pelle and his wife, Kristy, were overjoyed.

“We are always thinking of ways to remember her,” Dan Pelle told Adams. “Now we can see her every day.”

Adams seemed nearly as overwhelmed.

“Yes, it makes it a little easier,” Adams told the family as Kristy Pelle placed the oil of Koko in the corner among other family portraits.

Relieved by the successful delivery, Adams was eager to get home and start working on another dog in hopes of helping ease the heartache of another grieving pet owner.

“Losing your pet is like losing a child to me,” she said. “People are so excited because it’s like their pet is home.”