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Washington Times

Canine claws celebre

Reid J. Epstein

Published 4/30/2002


At 3 years old, Brooklyn native Tillamook Cheddar is very young to be opening her sixth New York art gallery exhibition. At 15 inches and 18 pounds, she's also very small. Tillie, as the Jack Russell terrier is known, opened her latest show April 25 at the National Arts Club. "Collarobations" - which marks the first time the dog has joined with humans to create art - is scheduled to run for three weeks.

Despite her success, Tillie, who is named after a popular brand of Oregon cheese, has skeptics who have yet to see her art, which looks like a series of colored scratches on paper. Jerry Saltz, the influential art critic at the Village Voice, called it "a sham."

But her patron, O. Aldon James Jr., the president of the National Arts Club, said that knocking Tillie discounts the possibility of millions of potential artists.

"Why be so species-centric to believe that the naked ape is the only one that can make art," he said. Mr. James predicted the exhibit "will enlarge the audience for art."

It probably should come to no surprise that the National Arts Club is sponsoring an exhibition of Tillie's art. After all, the club once had a dog - Malcolm, the actress Sylvia Sydney's pug - as a member.

Animals producing art is not necessarily a new idea. "Why Cats Paint" was a hit book in 1994. Many zoos give their elephants paintbrushes and easels to conquer the animals' boredom. Even bird droppings have been considered art, with one selling for $6,000 in a Dallas gallery. There is even a Museum of Non Primate Art in New Zealand, which has sponsored such exhibitions as "Termites: Their Art & Architecture" and "The Poetry and Prose of Pachyderm Prints."

But unlike the elephants and cats that have painted in unnatural environments, Tillie's art is natural, said her owner, Bowman Hastie. And unlike the termite and pachyderm exhibits, Mr. Hastie believes Tillie understands what she is doing when she creates the seemingly random scratches across her 9-by-12-inch canvases.

"She's really into the process," Mr. Hastie said. "She doesn't much care for the finished product."

Tillie may not, but her owner sure does. "Collarobations" will mark Tillie's sixth show. Her first, "Dog Tag," was in October 1999. Mr. Hastie said Tillie's two-dimensional work sells for from $150 to $500. A biography - tentatively titled "Portrait of the Dog as a Young Artist" - is in the works and a small fan club is in place. She has her own Web site (www.tillamookcheddar.com).

He even counts her earnings against his income taxes, and writes off her expenses as deductions.

"I'm hoping soon she'll be supporting me," said Mr. Hastie, who is a free-lance writer and editor.

While Tillie is the one making the art, Mr. Hastie may be the real artist. He prepares her materials and, obviously, negotiates for her work to be displayed. But more importantly, said Jon Kessler, the chairman of Columbia University's visual arts department, he allows her to create art without any inhibitions.

"In the end, Bowman might be the one that is the Wizard of Oz behind the curtain here," said Mr. Kessler, who worked with Tillie on a piece that will appear in "Collarobations." "It's the ultimate modesty, putting the dog out front. It shows Bowman's genius as an artist."

On a recent afternoon, Mr. Hastie was setting up for Tillie to work in his Brooklyn Heights living room. As he prepared the canvas - bristol board and colored transfer paper wrapped with transparent duct tape - she paced anxiously, her heavy panting mixed with short barks and growls. By the time Mr. Hastie finished tightly taping the boards, Tillie was excited enough to leap 2 feet in the in air, snatch them out of his hand and go to work.

"She's pretty calm except when she's working," Mr. Hastie said. "She gets riled up for that, and for squirrels. She loves to chase squirrels."

She started the piece by carefully licking the tape - "priming it," Mr. Hastie said - before her work began in earnest. Then she clawed at the board as if she was trying to dig through it, creating tension between the paper and the board. Mr. Hastie took the canvas away from her after 10 minutes, but not before she bit off one corner.

"Because she tore it, I don't know how hard I'll try to sell them," Mr. Hastie said, holding up the two pieces of paper, each covered with Tillie's scratch marks and featuring a big hole at one end, which could enhance the piece. "She's on the fringe of the art world, so maybe this reflects that."

Not surprisingly, some are skeptical about Tillie's status as a fringe artist. Mr. Saltz said it does not surprise him that Mr. Hastie compares his dog's seemingly random scratches to famous works by the abstract artist Jackson Pollock.

"Inevitably when an animal makes art it is compared to one abstract expressionist or another. If a dog makes Mondrians I'd be interested," he said, referring to the Dutch painter.

But other critics are willing to throw Tillie a bone.

"Since a lot of the art humans do is just scratches on paper, I don't see why we can't accept it from dogs," said Howard Kissel, who covers fine arts for the New York Daily News. "But my hunch is that she's not at all influenced by Jackson Pollock."

Tillie's art career started when she was 5 months old. Mr. Hastie was sitting on his couch writing on a yellow legal pad when Tillie jumped onto his lap and began scratching at the paper, which had carbon paper underneath it.

"I took it as a sign that she was trying to write," Mr. Hastie said. "It struck me as something interesting and different."
Ever since then Mr. Hastie has been providing Tillie with her canvas and letting her take over. Other than choosing the color of the transfer paper, Tillie has complete artistic control.

"Inevitably I end up imposing my thoughts and tastes on her," Mr. Hastie said. "But I try not to be calculating."
Mr. Hastie feeds her cheese after she finishes each piece, but he said it serves as consolation for releasing her work rather than payment for doing it.

"She gets very agitated when I take them away from her," he said.
Tillie's future depends in part on how well the "Collarobations" show is received. Mr. Hastie said her work has improved since her 1999 debut - "Her art has gotten more focused. I think she's more intense about it," he said. He hopes to find a gallery that will offer her a full-time position. Meanwhile, she scratches away on Mr. Hastie's floor and chases squirrels as he worries about her spot in the New York art world.

"Maybe once she's fully accepted she'll be able to do a stick series," Mr. Hastie said Tillie presented him with a stick twice as long as she is tall. "Maybe she can get an art residency out of the city and just work with things in the natural environment."

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