As I work on my book of pet portraits, I can’t help but reflect on many of the paintings I’ve created over the years. Just when I deem a specific painting as the turning point of my career, I find another one that has an equally significant role. Each and every painting embodies a certain period of my life. The whens and whats and the hows and whys that brought me to where I am today. Like this one, of Coley O’Brien.
Coley's painting was one of the seven portraits that VCA Laurelhurst Veterinary Hospital in Portland, Oregon, commissioned back in 2004, when they were in the midst of their grand remodel. They started out with commissioning me to paint their clinic cat, Casper, and if they liked it, they would have me do six more. And luckily for me, they liked it! And six more I did. One of the them being this majestic black lab, Coley O’Brien.
I remember painting his portrait in my apartment in Portland. I had one black and white photo to go by and knew very little about Coley, other than he was special enough to be selected as one of the six chosen animals. I could tell by his photo that he was fiercely loved though, and for lack of better words, I busted out his painting in a matter of a few days. I suppose the deadline for their grand opening celebration helped a little. But it was that fierce love I could feel in his photo that drove the paintbrush on the canvas.
On the day of the grand opening, the owners of the six animals I painted showed up, one by one, completely unaware that their animal companion was selected for a portrait to be displayed in their vet’s lobby. I will never forget when Ann walked through the door and saw her Coley, right there in front of her. I was standing back, about twenty feet, and could feel her radiating love and that deep connection she shared with her beloved dog. The room went silent with her reaction. I think everyone could feel that love. Really, it was impossible not to. “Wow. Wow. Wow. Wow. Wowwwwww…”, she said over and over and over again, as she was nearly bent in half with intense emotion, reaching out to pet her black beauty on canvas. It was in that moment that I knew I was on the right path and that giving my two week’s notice at my steady, full-time job, in order to meet this painting deadline, was the best decision I could have made.
A year later, after Coley had passed and Ann was going to the vet hospital just to spend time and sit with the painting, Ann’s partner reached out, asking me to recreate and paint Coley O’Brien a second time, from the same photo, as a surprise for Ann. This time, understanding just how special he was, I painted his portrait with a careful tenderness to capture Ann’s baby - to help fill that spot in her heart. I’ll never forget Coley O’Brien, or the love many of us share with our cats and dogs, horses and ferrets, or that silly billy goat. It’s the love that’s layered deep within my portraits. The companionship we share with our animals… it truly is the best. Thank you, Coley O’Brien, for helping me find the heart and the why, in what I do. ❤️
(The first Coley O’Brien has more of a pointy nose and the second has more blue. For different reasons, I love how these two paintings are unique, as well as how they represent two different (early) stages of my pet portrait career. The first, when I was taking that leap of faith, and the second, after realizing the unique gift within my animal portraits and the power they have to heal.)
Here's what Ann had to say about her portraits:
"Nikki Solone has managed to do something that goes way beyond a picture or even a memory: she captured the absolute essence, integrity and beauty of my beloved Black Lab, Coley O'Brien. I first became aware of Nikki's extraordinary skills when my primary vet commissioned her to paint some portraits of some of the clinics 'most valuable clients'...Coley was one of the lucky ones. I provided a basic black and white photo of my Coley and the end result staggered my senses. There he was, his look and presence captured in a way unimaginable. I didn't know what to expect and Nikki's magic brought me to tears. I was, simply put, in awe of how she was able to portray his spirit and courage from an old photo.
But it gets better.
My Coley lost his battle with cancer about 2 months after Nikki's portrait was unveiled and I would often drive to my vet clinic just to see Coley's portrait hanging on the hospital wall. My partner felt my grief and despair and had the answer: could Nikki provide a separate portrait? One that could hang in our house forever? Nikki came through again and I was given this incredible likeness of Coley on my birthday---the best gift ever.
Nikki is the kind of artist that feels her subjects...senses who they are, how they are. She never met Coley but must have been able to read his eyes, the way he carried himself and, most importantly, the way he loved and was loved in return. She captured everything that was Coley. I will cherish her timeless gift and forever appreciate her unique talents and compassion.
Coley is gone but thanks to Nikki's work he and I exchange glances, conversation and our own special understanding every day." - Ann S.