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Pets immortalized in murals

The Tampa Tribune
Published:   |   Updated: March 21, 2013 at 01:07 PM

Lucky Girl passed away in May 2008. But Dawn Carney sees her beloved dog every time she drives past Skip's Bar and Grill in Dunedin.

The retriever-chow-collie mix looks out from Skip's exterior wall, surrounded by hundreds of other pups. Each furry face has a story, and muralist Anna Hamilton seeks out those tales and unique characteristics before she paints the animals into her "Dogedin" mural.

The result is a tribute to adored pets that helps owners grieve, beautifies businesses and supports animal welfare throughout the community.

The combination of missions has touched such a nerve that in a year and a half, Hamilton has run out of space on her original mural and branched out to more sites throughout Pinellas County. A portion of her fee, which ranges from $75 to $200, goes to animal charities.

About half of the animals on the murals memorialize pets who have died, a powerful experience for pet owners who get to see their lost pet again.

"It's definitely a bittersweet thing," Carney said.

Hamilton becomes a sounding board while she paints for clients to share their sad, heartwarming and funny stories. One woman asked for her family dogs' portrait as a gift to her mother, because her husband died. Another woman relied on her dog as she fought cancer, but the dog died as the woman's health improved.

It makes Hamilton feel good to help people preserve happy memories of their pets, knowing that what they are doing also benefits needy animals.

"That's my favorite part — how much it means to people," Hamilton said. "I feel like I just made this person happy. From there, we raise awareness for rescue animals."

It's something Hamilton, 39, feels like she was born to do.

Growing up in the thoroughbred racing country of Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Hamilton spent summers drawing horses at the track and painting her own pets. She found a niche as a professional artist after moving to Florida in 1998, working with decorators to paint murals for restaurants and homes. Occasionally people would ask her to add their kids or pets into the picture.

She painted a mural for Skip's years ago that deteriorated because of weather damage. The new 40-foot-long wall that replaced it would have been perfect for a mural, but she and bar owner Skip French were uncertain what to do with it.

"I kept thinking, there were a lot of murals in town," Hamilton said. "I just wanted to do something totally different."

French had proposed a scene that included people with their dogs on the Pinellas Trail. Hamilton liked it but wasn't sold.

Then she woke in the middle of the night with a brainstorm.

She would forget the people and keep the dogs. She could do it as a fundraiser for Dunedin Doggie Rescue, where she and French had adopted pets. French would donate his wall, and she would contribute part of her sitting fee to the rescue organization.

No sooner had she started painting when passersby began to stop her to ask about including their pet. Within a month, 150 dogs, cats and more were up on the wall and Dogedin was born.

It was so successful that the logistics became too much for her to handle.

Carney, a Dunedin resident, had jumped to have Lucky Girl included as soon as she heard about the mural. It was a way to remember her first dog. As a humane society volunteer, she also liked how the mural project supported animals.

She and Hamilton became friends, and Carney used her public relations background to help Hamilton manage customers and promote her business. They decided to formalize the project by incorporating it as the nonprofit "Murals for Mutts."

Demand for spots on the Dogedin wall was so high that Carney and Hamilton expanded into other areas — two more locations in Dunedin, Pinellas County Animal Services, Gulfport and Central Avenue in St. Petersburg. The sites benefit different organizations.

They hope to add sites in Tampa next year if they can find business partners to donate the walls. There are plenty of animal lovers.

Brenda Bowen has turned to Hamilton for 12 of her dogs, past and present. All appear on the St. Petersburg mural on the side of the Gas Plant Antique Arcade.

"I just love it, and I love looking at all of them," Bowen said. "Anna — oh, what a gift God has given that woman."

Bowen's most recently adopted dog, Big Mac, became the 100th pet on the mural. Bowen took in the emaciated golden retriever puppy in November after her daughter spotted him eating out of a garbage can in Sarasota. Bowen already had three dogs at home, but she and her husband couldn't turn away one who needed to be rescued.

Bowen enjoys knowing that she is helping other animals by paying for spots on the mural. The Gas Plant painting benefits two of her favorite charities, Friends of Strays and Pet Pal Animal Shelter.  

It also brings together kindred spirits.

When she took Big Mac to meet Hamilton, Bowen met a woman who had her late golden retriever on the wall. As they talked, they uncovered similarities between the dogs — how they were discovered, their personalities and their quirks, like gnawing on pieces of wood.

The woman felt like she was meeting her dog again, reincarnated. Bowen was happy that Big Mac could help her through her grief.

"Things like this happen because of that wall," she said.