Critters on Canvas at Winston Gallery

by Amy Kingsley

Americans love pets. We spend millions breeding, feeding, clothing, inoculating and burying them every year. For a lot of people my age – late twenties – they are our surrogate children.

Okay, I fess up. You can include me in that generalization.

I’m not proud of it. When I assume the label “crazy cat lady,” I do it with equal parts mortification and resignation.

It’s a good thing my shame isn’t preventing me from enjoying the exhibition Critters: Real and Imagined at Associated Artists gallery in downtown Winston-Salem. In fact, on opening night – usually stuffy affairs whose only saving grace is free booze – I’m feeling quite relaxed. No need to pluck the animal hairs from my coat tonight.

The parameters of the show call on artists to create works based on animals or mythical creatures. But there aren’t very many dragons or phoenixes on the tracklit walls. We seem pretty happy with the animals we’ve got.

A rough census of the dog pictures uncovers three Labradors, a beagle, a poodle, a collie, a Welsh corgi and several I couldn’t accurately identify. Tabbies predominate among the felines, but their ranks also include three Siamese cats watercolored on paper.

The exhibit was judged by Millicent Greason, the owner of Urban Artware and SEED Gallery. Three works have ribbons stuck on the wall next to them.

Third-place winner Leslie Karpinski painted the colorful “Catbirds,” which is just what it sounds like: a collection of birds crowned with cat heads. The red ribbon honors “Foxal,” an acrylic and mixed-media piece featuring – what else? – a red fox encircled by doodles.

The winner is the darkest piece in the show, a massive painting by Kucharski titled “Collateral Damage.” Think blaring onomatopoeia, random vehicle parts and a mummified marsupial. The painting doesn’t hang; instead it looms over the gallery at a 45 degree angle from above an entrance.

There are a lot of farm animals in the exhibit, a development that I like to think owes its existence to the area’s vanishing rural heritage. There are sheep, chicken, goats and many, many cows.

Rebecca Dresser painted one of the Holsteins in “Young Cow at Dusk,” an almost impressionistic portrait tender enough to make you swear off hamburgers.

Dorothy J. Cattle doesn’t paint cows, but I wish she did. One of the pieces she submitted is “Pandora’s Second Chance,” a small sculpture of a doll sitting on a box filled with insects.

Associated Artists is a nonprofit organization that provides space for artists to show their work. They’ve got about 500 dues-paying members, and they host shows here in their downtown headquarters and at satellite locations across the western Triad. There’s a small gift shop in one corner to which member artists contribute.

The prices on the work in Critters are on the inexpensive side. Most of the pieces retail in the lower hundreds, with some drawings marked with double digits.

On opening night, metal percussionist Bill Smith pounds out tunes on hub caps, Tibetan bowls, cymbals, bells, gongs and canisters. The crowd circles his enclosure, examining work on the walls of the airy front room.

It looks like this place has absorbed the better part of the Thursday happy hour crowd. All you can see through the windows on 4th Street are bodies.

In the back room they’ve erected a square table, and the catering is pot luck. There are cookies, brownies, spreadable cheeses, crackers and dips.

They’ve hung work in a narrow hallway that runs alongside the back room. There are portraits of pets and an ink drawing called “Chick Watching,” by Debbie Schiappa. The wall is bookended by another bird drawing, this one titled “Blue Bird Blue” and penciled by Derek Cernak.

It’s enough to make me want to go home and commune with my cats. As I type I’ve got one curled in my lap, the real thing in three dimensions, purring and poking me with her claws.

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