DECORAH – Jennifer Fisher Jones opens the front door, but Ipu is her official greeter.
The laidback 11-year-old bloodhound-pit mix wags her tail and thoroughly sniffs pants legs and proffered hands. Satisfied these are “dog people,” Ipu lets visitors massage her silky soft and freckled ears before leading the way into the living room.
She waits politely until everyone is settled on the sofa before climbing up to be petted. The dog finally gives the newcomer’s cheek a languorous lick before moving over to her mom’s lap, plopping down and promptly dozing off.
“She is really sweet,” Jones said. “We brought her home from Belize where she was a street dog. It’s a long story, but she wanted a home, and she chose me to be her person.”
Opposite the sofa hangs a large oil-on-canvas portrait of Ipu, jowls drooping and root beer-brown eyes focused outward in a soulful gaze. Her painting is surrounded by other large-scale dog canvases that hang on every wall throughout the main level of Jones’ home and studio.
Jones is an artist. For several years now, the Decorah-based artist has devoted herself to painting large-scale dog portraits. So far, she’s painted nearly 30 portraits in her series, “Big Dogs: Large Stories.” Each painting is accompanied by the dog’s personal tale told by its human companions, resulting in a collection that is a visual and literary collaboration between the artist and pet owners.
“I’m a series painter,” said Jones, who began the project following a successful series of underwater-themed paintings. “I got a bee in my bonnet about painting people’s pets and thought, well, I’d better start with my own dog.”
She got the word out for dogs with interesting stories, and people responded by sending photos of their dogs. While Jones is working on a portrait, there are frequent conversations with the owners who share their dog stories of joy, humor and heartbreak. This has allowed the artist to put a different spin on each large portrait with setting, character and expression, all using the unifying thread of unconditional love.
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“And I’ve made a lot of wonderful new friends,” Jones noted, smiling.
There’s Beezus, a snuggly Jack Russell terrier-Chihuahua mix; Lurch, the jovial Saint Bernard; Jojo, a wire-haired Griffon; Moe the Havanese; Django, a West Highland terrier; the expressive Scruffy and Momma Mia and Blackie, all island dogs from Belize; a Scottish deerhound, Maclean, with his three dachshund companions Oscar, Tula and Frank; Noel, a national champion Rottweiler; Dodger, a golden retriever brought home from Turkey; a peek-a-poo named Marley and so many more.
Jones also painted a portrait of Griff, the English bulldog mascot for Drake University in Des Moines.
She spends as much as 40 hours completing an oil painting. “My style is not photo realism. I’m looking for something else. Capturing fur is challenging — layers and layers of paint to add texture and dimension. When I first started painting these portraits, I’d paint the reflection in the eyes last. Now I do it first because it brings the eyes to life,” Jones explains.
It’s impossible not to engage with Jones’ paintings, and it isn’t long before viewers are sharing their own dog stories. “You can feel the energy in a room completely change because conversation shifts from the head to the heart. Everyone relaxes. The art is accessible, and the dogs definitely have a presence. When one sells, it’s bittersweet for me because I’ve gotten to know these dogs.”
Jones also paints pet portraits on commission. She has exhibited the paintings in shows, galleries and venues throughout the area and compiled them into a website, www.big-dogs-large-stories.com and a popular gallery book. This fall, she participated in the annual Northeast Iowa Artists Studio Tour, where hundreds of visitors walked through her home/studio admiring her work.
For the record, Jones also has painted portraits of her cats. Ipu and cats Charlotte, Theodore and Moe all maintain a cordial relationship after a rather rocky beginning.
An Iowa native, Jones studied studio art at Macalester College in St. Paul, Minn., and earned her K-12 teaching certificate from the University of Iowa in Iowa City. She pursued her own art intermittently while working in galleries in San Francisco and Washington, D.C. When she and her family moved to Decorah, she decided to become a full-time artist.
Her non-dog art can be found at www.jenfishjones.com.