When painter Mark Barone's dog Santina died three years ago, after 21 years of companionship, he was devastated. But after his partner, Marina Dervan, suggested that they adopt a new dog from a shelter, both of their lives transformed in unexpected ways.
"I thought, maybe it would be a great idea to adopt a dog, and Mark was not interested—he just wasn't ready," Dervan says. "But that didn't stop me. I was going online and looking at dogs. But instead of finding a dog, I found out all of the statistics about what was going on in terms of the amount of animals who were being killed in our shelter system. And with all of the stats and the imagery that I was looking at—the gas chambers, and a bunch of pretty awful stuff—I kept sending this to Mark, saying, 'This is awful.'"
Barone's first response was that he didn't want to see it, but he soon changed his tune. "Two days later, he said, 'I have a really clear vision of what I want to do to solve the problem.'"
Barone's vision was both simple and extremely ambitious: 5,500 shelter dogs are killed every day in the United States, and he wanted to give that staggering number a face. So Barone committed to painting 5,500 portraits of shelter dogs, using photos of the animals from shelter websites from around the country. In Barone's work, each dog has a name—Dervan names the dogs that are listed only with numbers—and is titled with both its name and the date it was killed. The cumulative effect of looking at all of these portraits is staggering.
Barone is over two years into the project now, and has more than 3,500 portraits completed. Most of the dogs are painted on 12"x 12" wood panels, broken up by occasional massive 8' x 8' paintings of dogs whose story Barone feels particularly inspired by.
"The size of the project is half the size of the Sistine Chapel," he says. "The Sistine Chapel is 11,000 square feet, and this will be 5,500 square feet. If you stack the paintings 10 feet tall, it'll be two football fields long." Barone says he paints 10 dogs a day, seven days a week, and the two say that the project—which they've called "An Act of Dog"—is a full-time volunteer job for the both of them.
All of which leads to the question: Once the project is complete and the 5,500 portraits have been painted, what's going to happen to the work?
Barone and Dervan have ruled out selling the paintings, even in an attempt to raise money for a shelter. Instead, they intend to partner with a city or a philanthropist who wants to build a permanent home for the work, a nonprofit museum that can exist as a sustainable fundraising and public awareness solution to convert more of America's shelters into no-kill institutions.
There are still nearly 2,000 dogs to be painted, so there's time for them to find the exact right fit—Dervan says that they've turned down a few cities that didn't mesh with their vision for the museum—but for shelter dogs across the country, time is running out. At the very least, Barone's paintings give those animals a face.