Friday, April 20, 2012

Dead dogs and funeral homes

I’ve drawn more than my share of dead dogs.  Of course they aren't dead in the photographs, but memorial pet portraits have been a regular request, even before I started my business.  There are a lot of doggy mamas and doggy daddies out there who love animals much more than people.  I'll bet you know someone who prefers pets to people, dressing them like royalty and feeding them fancier food than some kids eat.  I sort of get it... people can be weird and rude.  Animals love you and forgive you and don’t keep score.  And dogs in particular nearly crap themselves with joy when you walk in the door.  I've drawn cats, horses, birds... but dogs are the most popular.  When those furry joyful faces disappear from life, people grieve deeply.

During my initial panicked joblessness, my mind raced constantly about how I could find a regular source of drawing income.  My last day of corporate life was 2/28/2005... my father's birthday of all days, considering I owed my career to him.  It was after Christmas, there was no obvious event coming up other than Mother's Day.  Birthdays? Anniversaries?  What happens regularly that would motivate somebody to pay me for a pencil portrait?

It made sense to apply the dead dog theory to people… some of us actually love people even more than our pets.  We have parents and grandparents and God forbid, spouses and children who leave our lives and we need to grieve and remember in our own special ways.  What if I started doing memorial portraits for funeral homes?  I can finish an 8x10” drawing of one person in about an hour and a half.  Maybe I could scan the image and print it on on prayer cards or thank you notes, too. 

When I get a new idea like this, I go mildly insane with excitement.  I think this is part of my unfortunate case of ADD.  I can’t sleep, I have racing thoughts, escalating the idea to worldwide fame status.  By 2 am, I’ve built my idea up to be the single most magnificent thought of my life.  I remember this happening for the first time when I was about 12.  I had the idea to try and get a job at Al's Country Store in nearby Gages Lake.  I could ride my bike there, I would have money for new 45 records or Love's Baby Soft or some sweet roller ball lip gloss.  I laid awake all night spending my money, wondering if I'd wear an apron.  After my brief whiff of sleep, I woke up thinking, "Why in the hell would I want to work in a store?  I'm a kid." 
Not getting a job.
But this memorial portrait idea... it was going to be BIG.  Who would I invite to my talk show appearances after my business booms thanks to my genius?  I woke up still gung-ho and ready to take the funeral biz by storm.  To use as an example, I framed a portrait of a client’s grandfather - with permission as he wasn't actually dead and I was afraid his family would see it at a funeral home and worry.  I trotted the pretend-dead grandpa around to funeral homes, full of naive enthusiasm.  I made up some sample prayer cards, using my horrible ex-boyfriend's name, which made me giggle.  Sometimes I crack myself up.  Not that death is funny.  Neither is rejection.

I got a lukewarm reception in several places I visited.  One woman even rolled her eyes when she thought I wasn't looking.  Was I going about it in the wrong way?  What do I know about the funeral business?  I was convinced this was a sure fire idea, but I didn't know that most funeral homes are part of big Wal-Mart like conglomerates and decisions aren't made at the local level. 

But m
y optimism knows no limits when I get good and torked up.  If I buy a lottery ticket, I give some serious and sober thought to how I should share the money with my family and whether I can get away with not sharing it with the mean ones.  I’m stunned when things don’t go my way.  What the??  I couldn’t figure out why these funeral people weren’t getting it.

Until I jumped out of the bushes and hit a little funeral jackpot.

I’d passed the Salata Funeral Home hundreds of times.  After getting the bum’s rush elsewhere, I dropped by Salata’s, accidentally parking in the neighboring business’s driveway.  I could see through the bushes that it looked like the Salata owners were walking to their cars.  Determined, I crammed myself through the bushes, waving my portrait and book, shouting hello, making them jump back in surprise.

John and Loretta Salata were kind people and they liked the idea.  Larry Stanczak, a prominent North Chicago businessman, had just passed away and they wanted to do something special for him anyway.  They ordered a portrait package and I had my first happy, regular customer.  For a while, life was great for me in the funeral world.  If it was your time, I hoped your family called Salata.

For almost a year, I drew a portrait for every family they served, including prayer cards and thank you notes.  They surprised each family with the portrait hanging above the guest book at the service.  Some weeks there were three or four memorial portrait packages.  My fledgling artist bottom line needed every penny and I was grateful and pretty tickled with myself.  It felt good to be helping families honor their loved ones.  To this day, memorial portraits are the most meaningful portraits that I draw. Sometimes the photos weren’t very clear, but I did my best.  At one point the funeral director refused to believe that I was drawing the portraits by hand.  “It doesn’t matter to me,” he said, “but I’m sure you’re doing it with a computer.”  I had to go out to my car to get a half-finished portrait to prove that I was really drawing them.  He probably couldn't draw a stick figure.

All good things must come to an end. The director began giving me some push back on my price. The owners' son decided that the portraits should be a paid option for the families, not a surprise, not a gift.  John had felt that by doing it every time for every family, it would set them apart.  I thought it was a lovely idea and damn, it was good work while it lasted. 

I reached out to a few other funeral homes and at one point, I was working with five or six at a time.  If they had all ordered at once, I might have been in trouble.  Other business came from the funeral homes too, I did a retirement portrait for one, an engagement portrait for another, wedding invitations for yet another.  But the portrait packages dwindled.  A grieving family has enough decisions to make.  I loved the idea of giving a portrait to every family, and not just because it helped me pay my bills.  Everyone seemed so happy about it.  I’d get letters from the families, thanking me.  Years later at art shows, I’d get asked, “Did you used to draw portraits for Salata?”  It did make the impression that John had hoped for.  If they'd stuck with it, I think it would have blended beautifully with the important work they do, easing families through such difficult times.

I actually interviewed with a funeral home during one of my fits of exasperation in my corporate life.  I was running on my treadmill, reading an article about big life changes in Men’s Health magazine.  One man had been in the corporate grind and changed careers to the funeral business.  He said something like, “Now my work is meaningful and I never take a single day for granted.”  Wow.  It spoke to me.  I wanted to do something meaningful too, and there are always plenty of customers in that business.  It’s not a field for everyone, but I am a tail-wagging codependent and love to care for people. I pictured myself holding the hands of the grieving a la Mother Teresa.  It turned out that the job entailed selling cemetery plots to my friends and family.  Screw that. Drawing memorial portraits fulfilled my altruistic yet capitalist urge without cold calling my friends to talk about how they will die someday and that I should benefit.

A couple months after I started drawing for Salata, I exhibited my work at my hometown summer festival.  I heard a family talking as they approached my display, “I wonder if this is the artist who drew Grandpa?” one of them wondered aloud.  It was the wife and family of Larry Stanzcak, my first memorial portrait for Salata. 

His grandson, Chris Finkel, turned out to be one of my high school classmates.  We’d gone to college together too.  We hugged and laughed at the coincidence. 

Chris’s grandmother pulled out a laminated prayer card with my portrait of her husband on it.  “I carry it everywhere,” she said, touching my arm.

I was sad to hear, years later, that John Salata Sr., whose health had been failing, passed away. He was such a warm person, happy to see you and glad to talk your ear off.  I would have been honored to draw his portrait if someone had thought to call me.  In their grief, perhaps they didn’t think of it.  I think John had been my true champion. 

Five years later, one last portrait order came from Salata and I had a final falling out with the funeral director.  The economy had taken such a toll on all of us, we just couldn’t agree on what was fair, couldn't agree on who was at fault about a subsequent mistake on the prayer cards.  (It wasn't me.  Just saying.) I hoped that last grieving family was happy with the portrait of that last precious face, that father, husband, grandfather.  I’ll always be grateful that I ambushed the Salata’s when I needed them the most.


  1. Wendy I had no idea you were so talented. I knew you were a nut from the reunions but no idea you drew.
    You need to hook-up with some party planners. You could do portraits at company parties, weddings whatever.
    Now I want a portrait of my dogs...
    Donna Mallory

    1. Thanks so much, Donna! You've got the nut part right. I'm always meaning to partner up with people and then I get distracted by playing games on Facebook. My portraits take a long time (hours), so I don't do on-site drawing. I did it once at a drunken Lincoln Park street fest, but the drunks didn't mind that I wasn't really that good at it on the fly. Would LOVE to draw your dogs. I put the drawings on note cards too, which people really like. Thanks so much for taking the time to comment.


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