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PLAYFUL | You, Too, Can Find Joy As a Pet Portrait Artist...with a Little Help from Michele Cahill

PLAYFUL | You, Too, Can Find Joy As a Pet Portrait Artist...with a Little Help from Michele Cahill

Photographs courtesy of Michele Cahill, Pet Portrait Fun

As coronavirus threatens our financial support systems, topples the delicate architecture of our daily lives, and erodes our senses of safety in community and connection, where should people turn when they want to reinvigorate their zest for life, their sense of fun and whimsy?

While there isn’t a one-size-fits-all answer, combining the act of creating art and safely connecting with others offers you a great chance to experience joy amidst these tough times. One of the reasons is that the act of making art has a positive physical and chemical effect on your brain. MRI studies and research into visual art shows that it has a stabilizing effect by reducing distress, increasing self-reflection, lowering cortisol levels, normalizing heart rates and even altering behavior and thinking patterns. 

And while there aren’t widespread data sets (yet), anyone who has participated in a Zoom call with friends and family, or had socially distant get-togethers in recent months can testify to the healing power of connection with people you love, heck, even people you just kind of like -- even if it is through a screen. 

We recently sat down with Michele Cahill, a pet portrait artist who has given her business a makeover to help people find a way to play and create during the pandemic, to get her take on finding joy right now. 

NEW YORK MAKERS: Can you describe the original iteration of your business and how it has evolved?

MICHELE CAHILL: I’ve always loved animals and art. My parents are from Ireland, from farming families, and, growing up, I felt like a displaced farmer myself. I was crazy for cats and dogs, birds, cows, horses, you name it. I would bring home strays all the time and ask to keep them. [EDIT: Not always with success]. In the sixth grade I recall having my first idea of combining my love of art and animals. But, my first priority was making a living, so I went to school for graphic design. I moved to New York City, where I’ve lived for about 18 years, [and] I loved what I did designing graphics for Nickelodeon and other brands. Nevertheless, I did still hope to connect my love of animals and art.

In 2015, I decided to dip my toe in by offering to do private pet portraits. The business grew and grew, and I started offering live paint-and-sip sessions where I taught people how to create their own pet portraits. By 2018, I was confident enough to devote my time full-time to pet portraits, with a combination of commissioned works and paint-and-sip events and portrait parties. I have a number of pet friendly venues in New York City, bars and restaurants, where participants could bring their pets to paint.

NYM: Teaching people how to create their own portraits sounds so cool. But complicated! How does it work?

MC: It’s simpler than everyone thinks at first. I start by really utilizing my background in graphic design. I don’t just paint a portrait of a pet, and I don’t encourage other people to either. I want to tell the story of the pet. As any animal lover will tell you, just like people, every pet has their own story. And some have very particular things they like to do with their owners. So after speaking with the pet’s person, we’ll come up with a narrative for where the pet is and what they’ll be doing. I make it really easy, even for people who swear they can’t draw a line. 

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I basically create a drawing of the pet in the scene we agree upon, then give the person all of the tools they need to first trace the picture and transfer it onto good paper, then do a paint by numbers style watercolor. I always tell them that the finished work, if they opt to do it themselves, is all their work. All of the marks and colors and lines on the paper, are their own. I love art and animals, but what I discovered during this process is that I also really love teaching. The events became one of my favorite elements of the business because I not only was able to create, meet people, and hang out with animals, but also I enjoyed the incredible rush of seeing the joy people found in creating art.

NYM: Do you believe that art brings joy to people’s lives in a unique way?

MC: Absolutely. You can only use one side of your brain when you’re making art, and so your anxiety levels drop. You’re in the moment, in the flow, focused on just creating that line, filling in that color. And when you’re working on a project that features your beloved pet, it adds another layer of contentment, I think. I also witnessed a huge sense of accomplishment when people were finished. Here were people who thought they couldn’t draw a straight line, leaving my class with a complete work of art.  

NYM: When the pandemic closed down meeting spaces, how did you handle it and how has your business fared? 

MC: I haven’t been able to do [in person] events, and I haven’t felt comfortable restarting them, even as businesses reopened. But at the same time, word of mouth on my portraits seems to have taken off, so I’ve been very busy doing commissioned portraits. Plus, I started really pushing my DIY kits, which are available on New York Makers. I already had the basic model in place because often when I was throwing a party, someone couldn’t make it for whatever reason, so I created a way for them to make them at home. They’ll text or email me a picture, I’ll do the drawing and then send them everything they need in terms of supplies — including watercolor paints and brushes, nice paper, a matte frame, tracing paper and a paint by number guide. People can do their kits solo, order them with friends and even set up Zoom sessions with me where I walk them through the steps. I’m doing more and more virtual party classes, and it’s really fun. 

NYM: Can kids do them? Now that birthday parties at bowling alleys and roller skating rinks are out, I’m thinking this could be a fun alternative for an activity-centered party?

MC: Absolutely. Kids ages six and up have a great time painting their pets, or their grandparents’ pets, or even their favorite animal. 

NYM: You clearly love animals and helping others. Is there a philanthropic element to your business? 

MC: Yes. We have hosted several paint-and-sip parties as fundraisers for animal shelters, and I’ve donated some of my own profits as well. Until coronavirus hit I also volunteered at NYC Animal Care Centers and sponsored the Best Friends Animal Society and North Shore Animal Leagues’ Strut Your Mutt events. 

As question marks and frightening possibilities loom, I think we could all benefit from hitting pause and playing. Preferably with two things — pets and art — that bring so many people consistent and immediate, but also profound, joy.