A Conversation with Artist Steve Sanderson
Your first instinct on seeing one of Steve Sanderson’s paintings might be to wish that you could jump onto the canvas and live within the lush peaceful greenery. When we first came across the paintings featuring spectral dogs accompanying their human companion from beyond the grave floating around instagram and the pet loss community, we instantly knew that we had to reach out to Steve to learn more about him, his inspiration and where he thinks pets go when they leave us.
'I wonder if the ol' girl misses me as much..'
Steve is a full-time artist living in Blackpool with his partner and their Greyhound Manny. He initially pursued graphic design after graduating art school but soon realised that his heart wasn’t really in it, so instead he turned to painting the English landscapes. It’s clear throughout much of Steve’s work that he is a dog lover. His lifetime of whippets and greyhounds has influenced his beautiful pastoral landscapes often featuring a solitary “old chap and his faithful greyhound” walking through the bucolic scenes. Naturally, the paintings that we were most enamoured by are the scenes of ghostly dogs. Even with their otherworldliness, they are serene and peaceful, and even in those scenes that feature ghost dogs there is a sense of stillness and connection rather than absence or longing.
His paintings blur the line between life and death and feel removed from time in their serenity. This feeling becomes even stronger with the knowledge that for Steve, the figure in the image is both past and future;
“I see this character as a combination of 2 people, one is me in the future, walking my faithful friend, and the other is my Father, who used to walk his 2 whippets, who have now sadly passed on, happily my Father is still here and walks his dogs daily."
So, while the human figure is Steve and his father, it’s reasonable to think that the dogs in the paintings are the embodiment of the various dogs Steve and his father have walked the country with over the decades. It’s nice to think that each painting highlights a little more of one dog’s spirit or attitude, and that they each add colour and personality to the series.
'We all still meet once in a while, when I close my eyes'
It's the paintings of ghost dogs that elicit the most emotion and feeling. What makes each scene so emotional is the proximity between the man and ghost dog, but the lack of interaction between them. Does he know his companion is there next to him, or does he just feel alone? As the viewer we may know more than the subject, we may know more than the subject, and that's kind of heartbreaking. But the series is also touching because as pet owners, we often hope that our pets do remain with us, either by our side or waiting to reunite at some future point. It's nice to imagine being the subject of Steve's paintings, invisibly comforted by our companions who went before us.
Rather than being inspired directly by his own experience with pet loss, however, Steve found inspiration for the series in a historic painting.
“I remember seeing an old Victorian painting of a girl sitting sadly, with the ghost of a dog looking at her. I thought it was such a lovely idea that I decided to do my own version on that theme. It ended up in a series of four paintings. I remembered all the dogs that have been in the family over the years and imagined them all there waiting for us when it's our time.”
'She's a lovely pup, plays on her own for hours..'
And why do we feel so emotional at the sight of a ghost dog sitting beside his former friend? From Steve’s perspective, “we miss our pets so much when they pass on, it would be lovely to think they will be around to greet us one day. I don't see any reason why they wouldn't be, as I'm a believer in the paranormal and have had several experiences.”
The entire series moved us deeply and has resonated in the pet loss community online. His work is used to promote events around pet loss and by those mourning and remembering their own pets. Even outside of pet death, his work attracts pet lovers of all kinds; a quick look through his Facebook page reveals that for every picture he shares with Manny, others respond with photos and memories with their own dogs. But the ghost dog series in particular seems to encapsulate the ineffable sentiments that many of us feel after our pets’ deaths.
'I knew you'd all be waiting, come on, show me the way home..'
For us, one painting in particular stands out, titled I Knew You'd All Be Waiting for Me, Come on, Show Me the Way Home. The subject lays on the grass surrounded by multiple ghost dogs and a ghost rabbit. At first glance he may appear sleeping, but his ghost stands among the pets and it is clear that he has died peacefully on the side of the river and his companions have come to take him into the afterlife.
“...what gave me the idea for this one was years ago I read a book about a man called Frank Sawyer. He was a River Keeper on the river Avon, and worked all his life there, he loved the place. One day in his old age, he went for a walk, lay down beside his beloved river and gently passed away. He was found a few hours later. I thought what a wonderful way to go. So the chap in my picture passed away quietly by his river. And when he did, all his old friends came to show him the way home, even his old childhood pet rabbit was there.”
It’s comforting to see death treated as a homecoming and a reconnection in Steve’s art, rather than and endpoint or a source of anxiety. Perhaps it’s his lifetime of living with dogs that has imbued him with such a peaceful attitude about life and death of our canine companions. “I've grown up in a family who have had dogs for as long as I can remember, in fact I can't remember a time when they didn't have a dog. In my early paintings I did a lot of Northern scenes, which often included a man walking a whippet, as I like to create a story in my paintings. Now I have my own Greyhound called Manny who features in my pictures.”
Wherever his attitude originates, Steve has managed to create a body of work that celebrates the bonds between man and dog that transcend our mortal lives. Does Steve think our pets walk by our side unseen for the rest of our lives? Not quite. “I'm not sure they stay with us for a long time, but do believe they hang around a short while to check on us. My mum heard her whippet walking across a hard floor after he had passed. But I do think we will see them again one fine day”