When Dogs Paint Masterpieces

The artistic dog Tillamook Cheddar, or Tillie for short, creates a piece of art during the grand opening of Tillie Ltd., in New York, June 2, 2004.

Sunday Morning correspondent Bill Geist visited with Tillie, the canine creator of a number of impressive paintings.

When, and if, you think of dog art, you probably think of traditional oil paintings of hounds on the hunt in the English countryside - or perhaps dogs playing poker.

That's what one woman expected to see at a recent dog-art exhibit opening, but she didn't see any canines on the canvas.

"I can't see any dogs there," the woman said. "There aren't any dogs."

It took her a moment to realize.

"It's the dog's paintings," she said. "Oh, I see! I was very confused."

It became necessary to explain that dogs were not the subjects of these paintings, but rather the artist. Tillie, a Jack Russell terrier and abstract expressionist, is an unusual artist who enjoys chasing squirrels outdoors in Brooklyn, where she lives with her erstwhile assistant, Bowman Hastie.

"So, this is a paw print," Hastie said, explaining one of Tillie's paintings that was hanging on a museum wall. "In this corner, where it's really filled in, that's really from all from individual claw strokes where she's just sort of doing the digging motion. These tooth marks are the most kind of dramatic marks that she makes. It does convey that kind of energy, aggression."

As with most abstract art, there's a lot of explaining to do.

"I think the meaning comes from the viewer, you know, more than the intent of the artist," Hastie said.

Tillie suddenly entered the gallery, but wasn't answering questions about what she hoped to achieve in these paintings or what her motivation might have been.

It's difficult to tell what's on the mind of this artist as she furiously creates, gnawing and chewing, biting and scratching, along with a lot of barking: Perhaps she's thinking of a mailman's leg> Or maybe the couch?

Tillie has 17 solo exhibits under her collar, including shows in Milan, Amsterdam, Brussels, and most recently in Bermuda, where she painted in the rose garden of the Premier's house, no less, before bemused and befuddled audiences.

Everybody wanted to know how Tillie got started in the art game.

"I was sitting on my couch writing on a tablet resting on my lap and Tillie climbed up and started writing on this page that I was writing on, and I had this idea to use carbon paper to record her marks; don't ask me why," Hastie said.

Tillie attacks the canvas with sound and fury for about 15 minutes until voila! Art!

She shares her unique style in a variety of venues, like New York's Rockwood Music Hall, where she was accompanied by a jazz combo - rather oddly at times.

Hastie said a London art newspaper described Tillie "as the most successful living animal painter, second only to a dead chimpanzee, Congo."

Tillie is hot. She has a book out (which she probably wrote herself). Even her puppies are in great demand.

"One of her sons seems to have some musical potential," Hastie said. "He's a singer."

Tillie has sold more than 100 of her paintings - fetching up to $2,200 each.

Some of her works have been purchased by Steve Weinstein, a Tillie collector, who already has one of her works at home.

"We've expanded our collection!" he said clinking champagne glasses with his wife, Anne, at the exhibit opening. "A lot of strength and passion with a single paw print.

"I've been drawn to Tillie's work by its aesthetic qualities," he said, "which I actually find to be kinetic and dynamic and very interesting, and sort of by the excitement of the whole process, and the questions that partnership with Tillie raises about the nature of art making, in some respects, the nature of cognition. And, heck, it's just fun. It's a painting by a dog."

Tillie's exhibit opened at the Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art, a serious repository, where Elise Outerbridge is curator and Tom Butterfield is founder.

"When Tillie's credentials were presented to us, we were really quite impressed," Outerbridge said. "I think she ranks up there with two of our most well-known artists in our collection, Winslow Homer and Georgia O'Keeffe. I mean, this is really abstract expressionism. And you know, you look at the walls, and you think of Twombly and Jackson Pollack and some of the other modern abstract painters."

"I actually feel that's a fair comparison," Weinstein said. "I think, when I experience a Pollock, I really experience the performance that's been memorialized in the canvas."

Despite no formal training, except some paper training as a pup, Tillie's work is often compared to her human counterparts, some of whose works are in our most revered museums and sell for millions of dollars.

"I think as I understand abstract expressionists they just release themselves from conscious thought, and Tillie's got a head start on those people," Hastie said. "She has the animal mind; she isn't so muddled by history and what critics are saying. I think there are a lot of people out there that are not ready to accept a dog as an artist ... It may be canine expressionism."

Tillie will let the critics argue whether her work is art or not. With her, it's all about the process.