- Associated Press - Saturday, March 15, 2014

MURFREESBORO, Tenn. (AP) - Gus and Emma’s portrait in their den perfectly captures their personalities and relationship, according to friends.

Gus‘ left hand rests on Emma’s right hand. Their painted expressions both gaze at the viewer, Emma’s eyes gentle and understanding, Gus’s eyes pensive and anxious.

Perhaps the only thing out of the ordinary about the painting hanging in Gus and Emma’s Murfreesboro home is the fact that they are dogs.

Art Growden, a Rockvale-based graphic designer, painted the portrait of Gus, a Boston terrier, and Emma, a golden retriever, for their owner, Susan Wilson. It is one of approximately 35 pup portraits Growden has done in the past few months, he said.

“I know in our house the dogs are the center of attention,” Growden said between sips of Cuban-style coffee during a recent breakfast interview at Rice and Beans eatery in Murfreesboro. “(For) a lot of people, those are their children.”

Wilson said she was so pleased with Gus and Emma’s portrait that she commissioned Growden to do a painting of her 14-year-old Shih Tzu, Rosie, as a Christmas gift for her daughter, Claire Wilson.

“Rosie was her dog growing up,” Susan Wilson said during a Thursday telephone interview. “(Claire) even cried when she got it.”

Growden said he got into the dog portrait scene almost by accident. He had not picked up a brush to seriously paint anything since he graduated from MTSU in 1983.

“I was just busy with a career and kids,” Growden said. He worked in Nashville at design firms until 2004, when he added an office to his home.

Now, his two adult daughters, Sarah and Rachel, are adults and artist in their own right. Seeing his girls paint motivated him to pick up the habit again. His home office now doubles as a studio, Growden said.

In October, Growden set up his easel and put paint to canvas, he said. At first he experimented with different images, especially Mexican luchadores. The whimsical acrylic paintings were a far cry from the brand campaigns he did for groups like the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce, a client of Art Growden Creative, his design firm.

However, dogs were not a new muse for Growden: He worked to create the design for the Rover bus system in Murfreesboro. The public transit’s mascot is a small, white cartoon dog dashing forward that Growden commissioned an illustrator to draw for the logo emblazoned on the buses. After a few luchadore paintings, Growden decided to take a shot at painting dogs himself.

“I thought people would like them,” Growden said. “I know we love our dog, and I thought it would be funny to do big portraits of dogs.”

The subjects in each portrait are painted in vivid, expressionistic tones. The high contrast between bright backgrounds and dark foregrounds captures a pop art sensibility reminiscent of Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe series.

“It’s like I’m elevating the dogs to celebrity status,” a smiling Growden said.

What started as a fun side project has now become a part of a better cause, said Penny Bolton, owner of Penny’s Closet, a clothing boutique in Murfreesboro, and a board member of the Beesely Foundation, a local nonprofit that provides affordable spaying and neutering programs.

Growden painted a portrait of Bolton’s dog, Muffy, a few month ago. In the painting, Muffy’s ears stand at attention above her curious eyes in an expression that perfectly captures the animal’s personality, Bolton said. The gold and purple hues of the portrait are reminiscent of the work of recently deceased George Rodrigue, an American Cajun painter best known for his Blue Dog series.

“We love our portrait of Muffy,” Bolton said, adding that she adopted the dog after her sister, Nina Rhody, died almost a year ago. “Within probably a month we had fallen in love with this sweet little dog. … We thought we loved our cats until we got our dog.”

Bolton was so pleased with the portrait that she asked Growden to man a booth with his painting at Paws and Pearls from 6 to 8 p.m. on May 8 at The Corners on the River in Readyville, and he obliged, she said. Tickets to Paws and Pearls are $65, and proceeds go to the Beesley Foundation. Additionally, Growden donated a 20-by-20-inch pup portrait valued at $250 to be auctioned at the event.

Growden said he is happy to help the cause, but his greatest joy comes from the reaction owners have when they see their pets on a canvas.

“I’ve had people cry and clap their hands and laugh,” Growden said. “I just love that moment.”

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Information from: The Daily News Journal, http://www.dnj.com