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Former Bemidji artist expresses love for pets through paintings

Jessie Marianello, a Bemidji native, works at a studio in Minneapolis, where she now lives. TOM WALLACE |STAR TRIBUNE1 / 2
Jessie Marianello, a Bemidji native, lives and works in Minneapolis' Uptown district with her three dogs. She paints mostly commissioned work, but has several projects going all the time. TOM WALLACE |STAR TRIBUNE2 / 2

Animal lovers have long been accused of thinking their pets have human traits by those who do not understand the bond between an owner and a pet.

But, animals lovers know with absolute certainty that their warm-blooded, four-footed furry pals exhibit human traits all the time.

If you don't believe it, just ask former Bemidji artist Jessie Marianiello of

In her Uptown studio in Minneapolis, she uses her talents to produce fine art paintings of companion animals.

Marianiello maintains a blog on her website, where she talks about the sale of one of her portraits, "Big Love."

"Today I sold one of my most very favorite paintings," she wrote. "'Big Love' taught me how important it is to trust my instincts and to make sure that I allow time to just paint for myself. That is, after all, where the best paintings come from."

During a recent phone interview, Marianiello said she is annoyed by art critics and other artists who claim painting companion animals like dogs and cats is selling out, cheesy or just not fine art.

Disagreeing with that premise, Marianiello believes painting an image that evokes emotion in the viewer, who will treasure that picture, is what life and art are about. She painted her first dog in January 2008, had a solo show "Dogs of Edina" in 2010, has artwork in "Bone Adventure," "Corazon," "Chuck and Dons" and "Wild Rumpus" and was featured in the 2008 fall issue of "Modern Dog."

Artists have been painting animals on cave walls (radiocarbon analysis of cave paintings in France date back 33,000 years) to describe what they saw and what we now call bison, horses and deer.

In ancient Egypt, animal images were incised on walls to instruct and embalmed probably because they were thought to have otherworldly power. The 18th century portraiture artist Thomas Gainsborough often painted the companion animals of his rich patrons. The famous Flemish weavers showed scenes on their tapestries of companion and hunting dogs with their prey. Fine art through the ages has pictured companion animals for centuries.

Marianiello said she paints because she feels that something real is happening when she puts brush to canvas and creates an image.

In another blog entry, Marianiello wrote, "I paint pet portraits because I have more love for animals that I know what to do (with). I paint because there is something beautiful to be captured in those transitory moments we share with the pets who have stolen our hearts for good. I paint dogs (and cats and horses) because now I cannot stop."

A look at her work shows how well Marianiello captures the personality of a pet.

Along with a belief that an animal's spirit is shown in its eyes, a special expression or even a subtle gesture, Marianiello strives to accurately portray how the hair lies, and how many different shades of color diffuse with sunlight or a myriad of other variables.

When Marianiello accepts a commission for a portrait, she usually meets with the pet and owner if they live within a reasonable distance. Many photos are taken of how the pet and owner interact or perhaps how they resemble each other. Some of the portraits display a brave little dog like Peanut, a Chihuahua who survived a rough start and was happily adopted. Peanut's portrait shows a complex mug with searching eyes asking if he can trust again.

A fanciful drawing of a bull dog named Addie and her squeaky elephant toy sleeping together brings a smile to the viewer. And who has not seen a black lab proudly holding a ball in his mouth, teasing for another throw. Marianiello freely admits she falls in love with every animal she paints.

"I get to know an animal on a very deep level and, because of this, I suffer from love-overwhelm," she said. "Sometimes I'm afraid that I might melt or explode or disintegrate, but it's an occupational hazard that I'm totally willing to live with."

Therefore, it appears that the transition from portraiture to animal paintings has been good for Marianiello. Some of her solo shows, like the one at the Bulldog Restaurant in Minneapolis, are pure whimsy.

Billed as a celebration of your inner bulldog, the installation was of 15 bulldogs: English to French to American and back to Olde English with some mixes thrown in for good measure.

And then there is the serious side to Marianiello's love affair with canines.

She is heavily invested in Red Lake Rosie's Rescue, a 501(c)3 non-profit animal rescue/shelter located on the Red Lake Nation reservation. The shelter, started in 2006, addresses the overpopulation of companion dogs and their resulting homelessness. She also participates in Pit Bull rescues and claims the breed is misunderstood because of poor reputations due to unfit owners.

But the best side to Marianiello, according to uncle Charlie Ward, is the care she takes with every painting she finishes, regardless the subject.

She recently completed two paintings she titled "Serenade." One of the pictures is of her Aunt Anne's three horses, two of which came from the Minnesota Hooved Rescue Association. The other is of her uncle's treasured 1930 Ford Model A car.

Grandmother Lois Ward proudly keeps a Star Tribune article featuring Marianiello in an article about animal artists.

If you're thinking about asking Marianiello to take on a special portrait, she is currently a year out in accepting new commissions. Not too shabby for a small town gal who studied painting at Bemidji State University with Carol Struber.