I began writing this weeks ago, before my friend Michelle Schutte’s fundraising goal had been met. Though her goal has been achieved, I hope more folks will become aware of her art. Michelle is a real artist. Besides studying it in school, she has been working at it for years; and like the best artists, her work is at the same time representational and interpretive, technical and emotional, studied and free. When my wife and I discuss emergencies, and how we will handle them, our list of things we pull from the imaginary fire is short: dogs, wife, husband, cats, and our two Schutte’s. It might be nice to grab our passports, and a few family heirlooms, but if our family is safe, the Schutte’s are the only inorganics I am very concerned about.
When Leonard Nimoy died a few months ago, media broadcast the Kirk quote from Wrath of Khan again and again, “Of all the souls I have encountered in my travels, his was the most… human.” And each time I heard it, I thought of my dog, Iggy, and his portrait by my friend Michelle Schutte. Like Spock, Iggy was not of our species, and like Spock, there were parts of human culture and emotion that were completely lost on him. Like Spock, Iggy displayed all the character, reliability, and generosity to which the very best humans aspire; he was to me, as Spock was to Kirk, the best person I knew. And Michelle’s painting of him captured that in a way no photograph ever did. Michelle’s portrait-work is like that — it is clear who we are looking at, but we also get to see something more, something alive, something special. Her portraits are not merely a capturing of that moment; they are a capturing of that being, as if she measures the value of her subjects, and finds them not just adequate, but exceptional.
Partly because I happened to have bought a new digital camera the same week we adopted Iggy, and partly because I joined Facebook a year later, I have hundreds of good pictures of Iggy. It makes me sad to look at them (Iggy died several years ago), but I do it anyway. I think the part that bothers me the most is that I always found Iggy very expressive, but most of (not all) the pictures I have of him don’t look like him anymore. I mean, the pictures are obviously him, and some of them are good! Iggy smiling in the flowers, Iggy clowning around with a ball, Iggy laying upside down… but the Iggy I can’t find in those pictures is the dog who looked at me and asked me to look at myself. I don’t see the look of the dog who taught me more than I taught him. I do see those in Michelle’s portrait of him, though. In Michelle’s portrait of Iggy, she captured his pride and his humility, his confidence and his reticence, his joy and his sadness, his calmness and his power. More than any of the hundreds of pictures I have of him, Michelle’s portrait looks like Iggy.
After Michelle finished the portrait, it was in our home for several months when she called and asked if she could include it in a show she was hanging. Of course I said yes, and asked if I could bring Iggy. I was pleasantly surprised when she said sure, and more surprised to find out that his portrait was hung front and center alongside her own self-portrait (see top). Iggy, as usual, was a gentleman throughout the opening. Watching Michelle with him that night helped me understand why she was able to create such a wonderful portrait. She had, and has, a way with animals that is very special. Instead of looking for the differences, she looks for the sameness-es. Instead of finding just the subject, she finds the emotional and the intellectual, the history and the potential. Whether Michelle is walking a dog, petting one, or painting one, she looks inside them and finds the very best of them. When we are very, very lucky, she shows it to us through her work.