A new relationship with animals, nature and each other.

An Act of Dog

An art project that portrays the heart of the no-kill movement


It’s hard to grasp the sheer number of homeless dogs put to death in shelters each day. Shelters estimate 5,500. But that’s just a number that can’t tell the story. Nor can bios or memorials. But it can perhaps be accomplished in art.

So, imagine an exhibit of beautiful dog portraits – 5,500 of them on the walls of a single art gallery that’s two football fields in length and 10 feet high. Each and every one of the paintings is taken from photos of dogs, from poodles to pit bulls and mastiffs to mutts, who were taken to a shelter and then killed. Together, they represent the numbers who die in shelters around the United States each day.

To accomplish this mind-blowing project, two people have quit their jobs to dedicate at least two years of their lives to create and mount the exhibit: An Act of Dog.

Mark Barone, the artist, and his partner Marina Dervan, who is helping organize the project, expect to have the exhibition completed by the end of May 2013.

They hope to raise $20 million for no-kill efforts around the country.

The two have left their professional consulting work to bring their vision to fruition.

Right now, their main supporter in the project is the Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center in Louisville, where Barone lives and works – all day, every day. By the time the work is completed, they aim to hang the collection in a gallery where it will be on view to all of us.

When the portraits go up – roughly a year and a half from now – they’ll be on sale for $3,550 for a 12-inch-square piece and up to $21,000 for one of the large 8-foot-square pieces. People who buy them will agree to leave them hanging as long as the exhibit continues. Proceeds will go to no-kill groups, organizations and programs.

We talked with Barone about the whole project.

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Michael Mountain: What do you experience from the dogs by working on this every day, seeing the photos and translating them into paintings, and from absorbing something of each dog?

Mark Barone: I spend seven days a week, from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. looking at the photos of their little lost spirits, and am faced with the needless and painful tragedy of it all. My intimate connection with them has changed me forever. They are all etched permanently onto my heart, and will remain a sacred part of me until I die.

Pit bull Blue, killed at a shelter December 2010

M.M.: What do you want people to take away from the exhibition?

M.B.: We want them to have a deeply visceral, visual and vivid experience. We want the 5,500 sweet faces to move them to action. We want people to recognize that what took one man two years to paint we kill in just one day.

Beyond that, we want people to buy a painting, because they care and because they or someone they know can. We want everyone to examine their moral fiber, and say no to the killing of our most vulnerable companions, ensuring the dream of a no-kill nation.

We are also producing an educational documentary about what lies beneath America’s failed and outdated shelter system. And we will focus primarily on the successful solutions from shelters implementing Nathan Winograd’s no-kill equation. It will provide everyone a means to understanding their part in it and their role in being part of the solution.

Mark Barone in the studio

M.M.: Do you have any concerns that people might worry that they’re going to be upset by seeing so many dead dogs in an exhibition and that they might not want to take the kids?

M.B.: Thus far, we have had quite the opposite response from school kids. We have had many come with their teachers to the studio, excited and moved by what we are doing.

Remember that the paintings are interpreted from photos of living dogs, taken just prior to their deaths. They are beautiful and haunting at the same time. Most museums are of little interest to most children. Ours, by contrast, is thousands of paintings of beautiful dogs that kids will adore.

And if parents want to keep their children from the details until they’re older, they can simply take them there for the visual experience, which will be enriching to say the least.

M.M.: Most city shelters have more pit bulls than anything else. What do you expect to be the percentage of pit bull‐type dogs?

M.B.: Pit bull mixes will probably be around 40 percent.

M.M.: Are there two or three dogs who have particularly taken your attention while doing the paintings?

M.B.: Cato is one dog who really stayed with me because of the resignation and sorrow in his face, the haunting imagery of the injection tube around his wrist, and the utter powerlessness in his pose.

Harpo is a dog whose imagery reflects everything that is wrong with our failed Shelter System.

And Youcon is wearing a sweater that’s symbolic of how he was abandoned by the family he once had and loved. He sits with a sweet posture and the look of a yearning plea, begging to be loved once more.

act-of-dog-cato-200-010912 act-of-dog-harpo-200-010912
Cato and Harpo

M.M.: How did you come upon the Mellwood Arts & Entertainment Center in Louisville? What led to them giving you the space to do this work?

M.B.: We had enrolled 31 cities, and Louisville was one of them. They connected us with the Mellwood Arts Center, who wanted to support our project by subsidizing the work and living space. We chose them because the space was immediately available, knowing that every day we waited, more animals would be killed.

M.M.: Any plans to take the exhibition on the road?

M.B.: The exhibit will be enormous and will be hung in one place. We have many cities vying to house it as a permanent museum/memorial. It could also be hung in an existing national museum. At a national museum, the exhibit time would be less, but long enough to raise awareness and money. A permanent museum allows money to continue to be raised so we can forever fund the no-kill movement. We will take the path that leads to the greatest contribution to the animals. We want to remain open to other innovative possibilities, too, so we can reach as many people as possible.

M.M.: When someone buys a painting, when do they take possession of it – especially if you’re talking about a permanent exhibit?

If we do it as a temporary exhibit, donors will receive their paintings after the exhibit has run its course. If it’s housed permanently, donors can bequeath their painting to the museum for its lifetime, and will be acknowledged in a tribute book alongside the painting and online. If the exhibit ends or the museum closes, donors will own the rights to take possession of their painting.

M.M.: How will the funds from sales and donations be used?

One hundred percent of all monies from the sale of the paintings will be donated in its entirety to no-kill/rescue/foster groups to support medical needs, rehabilitation, spay/neuter, marketing campaigns, housing, etc.

Marina, Mark and Gigi

M.M.: Are any foundations, major humane groups etc. coming on board?

M.B.: We’re primarily a self-funded, tax-exempt 501c3 charity. We encourage people and companies to step up and sponsor paintings, to help pay for supplies, or purchase one if they can.

We just spent $9,000 on paints and wood, and we are just seven months into the project. We are only interested in partnering with foundations and companies that are ethically aligned and transparent.

M.M.: How are you living while taking 3 years out of your regular working lives?

M.B.: We are living off of our savings and Mark has cashed in his IRA accounts. We live frugally in order to bring this project to fruition. That means no socializing or other outside activities that would require spending. We eat out once a week at Whole Foods, and the rest of the time at home.

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act-of-dog-logo-300-010912What You Can Do: Donate to the project or sponsor one of the paintings here.

More Info: Check out the video from An Act of Dog. Also, Sharon Peters has written about the project at USA Today. WHAS, Louisville, where the exhibition is being prepared, has a TV news interview with Mark and Marina, along with Jessica Reid of No-Kill Louisville.