By Gina Malone
One look at Flat Rock artist Liz Wiesel’s charming portraits of animals in fussy garb with wise and quite human expressions on their faces, not to mention distinguished sounding names and astonishing biographies, and you might wonder how an artist is inspired to create such imaginative joy on the canvas. “I spend inordinate amounts of time looking at dog eyebrows and cat lips,” Liz says, “trying to convey a story and personality behind the animal. I think I may read animal faces better than people at times.”
She grew up in Michigan with pet bunnies hopping all over the house—a compromise between the dog her father did not want and the cat her mother would have been allergic to. “Now that I am all grown up, my house has three dogs, two cats and one pet rabbit,” Liz says. “They add so much to our family in terms of love and comedy that I can’t imagine our home without them.” They also help inspire her current work, narrative portraiture. “Our furry roommates all have distinct personalities and voices,” she says, “and we spend a lot of time figuring out what they would say if they could talk to us and how they feel about the goings-on of the house.”
Her animal portraits all begin with frames, often old and neglected, with a sense of history that inspires her. A few years ago, when a co-worker gave her a box of old, solid wood, oval frames, Liz’s creative mind knew just how to fill them. “The frames had held old portraits of long-gone family members and it really sparked something in me,” she says. “The frames really inform what kind of animal I will be painting. Is it feminine or masculine? What time period will the clothes be? Is it grand or simply excessive? All these questions lead me to a decision about what kind of animal I need to paint, who they are and how I can show the narrative through the painting using pose, expression and clothing.” She researches both the look of the animals she is painting and the historical clothing they wear in their portraits.
Her images come out of the first stage of her creative cycle, in which, she says, “In a burst of creativity, I am flooded with loads of ideas that I need to write down fast so they are not forgotten. This leads to lists of weird things like duck with monocle, rabbit and beer, and bulldog with Elizabethan collar and twizzlers.”
After the ideas and the research comes the painting, with personalities developing as the painting goes along. “My brushes are laughably tiny and I paint very, very slowly,” says Liz. “I try to work on several paintings at the same time so I can allow for layers of texture to dry without messing things up with my own impatience.” When she is happy with a painting, she brings it from her backyard shed studio to the house in order to live with it for a while as it dries. “Generally, paintings make this walk back and forth from studio to house a few times before I am truly done fussing and ready for it to be done,” she says. “Once framed, I get to the really fun part of giving the portrait a name and short biography. I find that people connect as much to the stories as to the images, which I find intensely gratifying and delightful.”
Her animal characters, she discloses in narratives of intimate details, display such traits as social anxiety or “plans to smash the patriarchy” and even, in the case of Charles Timothy Foster, “a decent type of bloke,” a past drinking problem.
While working on a commission of a cat, Liz remembers an email exchange with the pet owner in which she tried to find out more about her subject in order to capture the cat’s personality. “I asked him ‘When you talk to your cat, because I know you do, and when she answers you, because we know she does, what accent does she have?’” Liz recalls. “She was a Russian Grey cat living in the South, so I was not sure if she spoke in a Russian accent or a southern accent. He surprised me and answered back immediately, ‘She has a French accent. We brought her home from a breeder in Quebec Canada, so English is her second language.’ I loved that interaction so much because it explains how dear and human our pets are to us, and I think it helped clarify for me why people react to my work the way they do.”
She cherishes a painting that she did of the family dog, Sophie, a 12-year-old Collie rescue. “I painted her as an old but lovely head of the family,” Liz says, “and it is a picture I know my kids will argue over when it is time to pass it to the next generation. I love that she will be a permanent fixture in the history of our house forever.” Liz credits Sophie with helping her raise her three children, there for the late night feedings and the toddler walks.
“Art does not have to take itself seriously at all times,” Liz says. “It comes from dedication and hard work, but I want people to feel like they can chuckle in a gallery. Art can be lighthearted and ridiculous and still connect with people. I hope that is what my pieces can do on a daily basis.”
To learn more about Liz Wiesel Arts, visit Instagram @lizwiesel or Etsy at LizWieselArts. Liz can be reached by email at email@example.com or by phone at 828.551.7487. Find her work displayed at Woolworth Walk and The Gallery at Flat Rock.