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Artist Mark Barone Paints Portraits of 5,500 Euthanized Dogs to Raise Awareness About the Plight of Shelter Animals

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Stacked ten high, they span the length of two football fields and outsize Michelangelo’s famous Sistine Chapel ceiling paintings. But for Jacksonville, Florida, artist Mark Barone and partner Marina Dervan, the collective masterpiece of thousands of 12×12 portraits dubbed An Act of Dog is more than a work of art – it’s a heartfelt call to action.

“A camera can’t give an image soul,” Barone says in the trailer for the upcoming PBS documentary on the project. “But an artist can.”

To that end, Barone set out to paint the soulful faces of 5,500 shelter pets that were euthanized over the past few years – each portrait representing one of the 5,500 dogs lost to America’s kill shelter system daily. That’s 1.2 million dogs put down each year because shelters are simply out of space and the animals are out of time.

The faces among canvases include:

• Batman a 90-lb, 10-year-old senior dog, who was left outside on a frigid February night by a shelter worker and found frozen to death the next morning by a volunteer.

• Ringo, Pepper and Sasha, euthanized at a rural Louisiana shelter despite the fact that a rescue organization transporter was on the way to pick them up and take them to safety

• Tiny Tot, a miniature pinscher euthanized for space, despite his diminutive 5-pounds.

“The word ‘shelter’ implies protection, which is what I thought was going on in America’s shelters,” Barone says, noting that a number of shelters the couple has investigated are doing commendable jobs. “But there are way too many that aren’t protecting animals in any way, shape or form.”

Ultimately, this massive montage of portraits will be the focal point of a museum dedicated to educating the public about the plight of shelter pets, plus a slew of related issues including dog fighting, puppy mills, animal abuse and neglect, breed specific legislation, animal testing and legislation for rescue access. Even as Barone and Dervan search for the right locale for the museum, An Act of Dog is already making a difference, having raised $20,000 from sales of prints, posters and nightlights, distributing the funds to carefully vetted shelters nationwide.

FACING THE ISSUE

“Art is powerful. It speaks to you. You can’t shut it up, tear it down, ignore it,” says Dervan, a former life and career coach who was the first of the two to learn about the plight of America’s shelter pets. “People want to remain compartmentalized and separated from any difficult issue because then, you don’t feel it. But if you don’t feel it, you can’t do anything about it.”

Dervan’s rude awakening came in the midst of grieving for the loss of Santina, the German shepherd mix that Barone rescued from an abandoned building during a walk home from church while living in Paducah, Kentucky. Santina was Barone’s constant companion for some 20 years and, along with Rudy, a cancer-stricken terrier mix that had been dumped at a Red Cross site, is credited with helping Barone through a contentious divorce and a career low.

To help fill that void, Dervan began searching online pet shelter and adoption sites for a new four-legged friend. But in that research, she was hit with a deluge of information on the heartbreaking plight of America’s shelter pets – like the fact that out of the 7.6 million animals that enter shelters nationwide every year, more 2.7 million never make it out, according to statistics from the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (ASPCA).

To Barone’s dismay, Dervan began sharing her findings with him and simply wouldn’t let up.

Finally, “I went into strategy mode to figure out what I could do that would make a difference,” Barone says.

“I knew that whatever I did had to be big enough and profound enough that it would make people sit up and pay attention to what’s really happening. “So I said to Marina, ‘Give me the approximate number of dogs that are killed in shelter every day.’ When she said 5,500 I was in absolute disbelief.”

That conversation gave rise to the portrait painting project that would consume the next 1,400 days of Barone’s life. Dervan took on the task of collecting photos snapped of pets by shelter workers, volunteers and animal advocates prior to the pet being put down.

“I chose the 5,500 dogs and would put off that choosing as long as I could, as it was deeply saddening, maddening and tough to choose between so many,” Dervan says. “I would look at their eyes and connect with their souls. I made sure I added senior dogs, injured but healable dogs, deaf and blind dogs.

WEATHERING THE STORM

After completing 4,995 portraits (completion of the final five will be documented by the PBS documentary production crew) Barone was dealt a crushing blow by a storm that damaged nearly 1,000 paintings.

“This was literally six tons of art work and we had five days to pack like mad because another storm was coming in,” he says.

The effort has nearly depleted the couple’s retirement funds and has taken a physical, mental and emotional toll. Yet, along the way, there are promising signs. Los Angeles-based Aaron Neubert Architects donated its time and talents, creating architectural renderings of just how An Act of Dog’s planned Museum of Compassion may look.

The couple also has participated in several outreach programs in which school children use their own art work to help spread awareness of shelter pet issues in their areas.

“We want kids to engage themselves into these programs, so that they can say, ‘My artwork saved an animal. I can use my artwork for purpose,’” Dervan says.

Today, Barone and Dervan make their home in Jacksonville, Florida, with Gigi, a hound mix adopted from a Louisville, Kentucky, shelter the day before her scheduled euthanizing; Twitch, an abandoned cat that had taken up residence in Barone’s rented studio; and Santo, picked up along the route home from a Trader Joe’s shopping trip. They chose Jacksonville in large part because of city’s monumental feat in becoming the nation’s largest community to achieve no-kill status.

Fewer than 20,000 animals enter the city’s shelters and more than 91 percent are adopted or returned to their owners, thanks to an unprecedented partnership between Jacksonville Animal Care and Protective Services (the city-run shelter), the Jacksonville Humane Societ and Jacksonville No More Homeless Pets.

While Jacksonville currently is a top consideration for locating the museum, Barone and Dervan are ready to go wherever the project may take them.

“Once you truly learn about the issue, it doesn’t leave you – Not if you have any sort of empathy or compassion or care in your being,” Barone says. “That’s why this project has become our lives. We’ve laid it all on the line.”