Painted Obituaries: An Interview with Leigh Cypres
Leigh Cypres didn’t set out to paint dead dogs. She didn’t even intend to paint dogs, not really. But on a whim now over 20 years ago, Leigh picked up a brush and began crafting likenesses of her beloved rescue Boston Terrier Hugo.
‘We had moved into this house and the owner before had left some pieces of wood, like garbage pieces of wood, and I started painting on those and I didn’t really think much of it.’ She found that she loved the process, so she continued to paint Hugo who sat by her side as she mastered the shape of his ears and the feelings reflected in his eyes.
‘I have no art background aside from what we did in school or camp or whatever. I always secretly wanted to be an artist, but in those days you had to have whatever somebody decided was talent, which seems very strange.’ Without a formal art education, Leigh developed her style through sheer practice and used the early internet as her teacher, googling types of paints, brushes and techniques, and by incorporating elements of some of her favorite artists like Alice Neel into her many paintings.
Very quickly she had more paintings of Hugo than she could reasonably keep in her home, dog lover or not. So, on another whim, she listed one of her paintings on a new website called eBay. ‘I didn’t really know what this eBay thing was. And I looked at the art section and there was not even a page full of listings. It was all just a giant fluke, something told me ‘oh just put one of your little dog paintings up’…I put it up and it sold, I think maybe I asked $25 or something for it.’
Things snowballed quickly, for as she continued to list her art on eBay, people began reaching out asking Leigh to paint their dogs, and from there her commission business grew. When Instagram became popular, she found it a natural outlet to share her art and found a broader audience in the community of rescuers, dog-lovers, and art lovers.
‘Since I wound up painting so many dogs, over the years people’s dogs started dying who I knew. So I started painting a lot of paintings in honor of dogs and a lot of that became my commission business…Then also my own experiences, I’ve had up to 5 dogs at one time, so I’ve gone through a lot of loss.’ As an active dog rescuer, Leigh has welcomed many older dogs into her home, so she was able to relate easily to those who reached out at a time of loss.
In spite of their ever increasing numbers, she gets to know every dog she paints intimately. listening to the owners’ descriptions, going through social media posts, really focusing on the aspects of the dog’s expression and attitude that she can glean from captured moments and cherished memories. When I mentioned that I was particularly taken by Momo, a small, one-eyed dog featured on her website, Leigh quickly cried out ‘oh Momo! I LOVE Momo,’ and it was immediately clear that although she had never known Momo in life, she had grown to know him in the time it took to put his likeness on the canvas. By the time she’s done with a painting, Leigh’s connection to each animal is palpable. When I asked about the dogs featured on her website she could recall anecdotes and attributes of each dog whether she painted them last month or last year.
As her network of pet and art lovers expanded, Leigh noticed that people had a hard time speaking about the grief around their dog’s death. Clearly though, there was a desire to process the grief in some way, since they were honoring their pets through art, but it seemed people generally didn’t have the vocabulary to put words to their feelings.
In her latest project, Beyond a Cute Dog Painting, Leigh hopes to help pet owners find the words to express their grief. She asks pet owners to send an obituary- whatever that constitutes to them- to her and she will paint an accompanying portrait of their dog. She has been surprised, however, by how challenging people were finding it to write an obituary. Of course, people are not often given the space to speak freely and at length about their grief at a pet’s passing. But beyond that, there’s something in the word itself. The term ‘obituary’ implies a formality that pets aren’t usually afforded. At its core an obituary is an account of a life and a notice of death, something that is treated as exclusive to humans, but need not be, since all creatures live, die and touch our lives in various ways.
When explaining her concept, Leigh describes obituaries as a written form of remembrance, keeping the definition expansive and opening up potential means of expression for the bereaved. ‘It’s just anything that means anything to you. Even if it's just a funny story or your favorite story about the dog, that’s what’s important...Obituaries are social constructions and they were "made for humans," but the ritual of an obituary is healing and good memories and a way to process.'
William McDonald, obituaries editor at the New York Times, would seem to disagree with this wider definition of an obituary simply as a written form of remembrance, regardless of species. In a 2019 New York Times article explaining why they no longer cover dead animals in their obituaries, McDonald wrote that animals cannot lead ‘exemplary lives’ or do ‘accomplished things,’ so their lives don’t warrant public written notice. Clearly these are not the words of an animal person. Of course there are some animals who truly lead exemplary lives like Lassie, or the trained dogs who search for survivors in burned and collapsed buildings. Or Lil Bub, the cat who garnered millions of social media followers for being kind of derpy. Surely we can accept that these are exemplary animals. But beyond that, any person who has lived with a pet (that they liked) knows how exemplary their impact can be on those who know them.
Leigh herself knows this better than most. Her entire career as an artist stemmed from a sudden desire to paint Hugo the rescued Boston Terrier. ‘I don’t know where I would be without him.’ Would she have always found her way to painting if Hugo hadn’t sparked her creativity? We’ll never know.
I would argue that it can be just as interesting to read about a dog I’ve never met as it is to read about a human stranger. That said, McDonald’s opposition is as understandable as it is widespread. It plays into the false idea that honoring, celebrating, and grieving the pets in our lives lessens our respect for other humans. However, we’ve said it before and we’ll say it again, embracing grief about animals can only help us better process grief for the humans we lose as well. It’s a positive, not negative correlation. Leigh’s Beyond a Cute Dog Painting project addresses this understanding and encourages pet owners to celebrate and commemorate the place their dog holds in their hearts.
Leigh's guidelines for submitting to Beyond a Cute Dog are:
Photo of your dog: I will need an in focus, high resolution photos of your dog's face straight on, with a good clear view of their eyes.
Written Obituary:, If you wrote an obituary on social media, that is perfect to share with me If not, write from your heart. If you don't know where to start, think of your time together, how and why you miss them and what you miss most. The unique details are what makes your relationship special.
I ask that participants share the project on social media and in their email newsletter, as applicable.
Paintings will be watercolor on 11" x 14 " paper. I use beautiful handmade watercolors from @caseformaking, a small woman owned company, on the highest quality watercolor paper Arches 140 lb.
Payment for the painting is required. Each painting is $200 which includes shipping.