When Farmersburg resident Ethel Lenth looks at her living room wall, she feels she can almost reach out and pat the fur on the heads of her beloved dogs. Many have come and gone, and several are still with her, but all have been memorialized by pet portrait artist Rabecca Hennessey of Bent Willow Gallery & Studio in Guttenberg.
“I thought of this as just a project, but then I realized the responsibility that we take when we take on a commission for someone,” Hennessey reflected. Over the past two years, she has painted 14 portraits of Lenth’s boxers; robust dogs in various colors and shapes, all with sensitive eyes and protruding jaws.
The dogs are obviously family to Lenth, who now has three – a set of 18-month-old siblings, Paisley and River, and 10-year-old Buck. She brought home her first boxer in 1974 and has stuck with the breed ever since. She and her late husband, Brad, weren’t able to have children – a fact that has weighed on Lenth for a lifetime.
The couple worked side by side on their farm for nearly 45 years. They were so inseparable that when Brad died five years ago, Ethel found herself very alone – except for her boxers, Molly and Buck. “I couldn’t have done it without them. My dogs were always there when I cried,” she explained. When Molly lost her battle with cancer, Lenth saw Buck feeling just the way she’d felt when she lost her partner. “He didn’t eat. I watched him get so sad and give up, and I felt so helpless because he and Molly were so strong for me and I couldn’t be strong for him. So I decided we needed a new puppy.”
If you are Ethel Lenth, you don’t get just one puppy. She came home with two, which she named after a paisley shirt Brad wore in high school and river, a word she feels Brad chose himself. Even with two new wrinkly, wriggling boxer babies to care for, Lenth still felt anger and grief over the loss of her husband and life’s many other trials. Her doctor suggested she do something for herself, which was a foreign concept to the 67-year-old farm wife.
So she reached out to Hennessey, who’d advertised her pet paintings online. The artist came to visit, sifting through piles of photographs and talking with Lenth. “When you’re in that hole so deep, you need people like her to listen,” Lenth told The Press. “I looked forward to each new painting as it came. I remember the first time, I cried, because it was so overwhelming. Rabecca was probably the first person to listen to me. We ended up getting to know each other pretty well.” A healing journey that would entwine both artist and patron was underway.
Hennessey took an oil painting class in the 1980s while earning a living as a freelance commercial artist. A working wife and mother, she enjoyed classes but put her paintings aside for over a decade. “About five years ago I decided to try to paint again. When I did I was hooked, and now it’s like I never stopped,” Hennessey explained. After painting her sister’s West Highland white terrier and several portraits of her own cats, she began taking commissions for pet portraits with the full support of her husband and business partner, Kevin. Soon after, she met Lenth.
“I came over with a sample of a pet portrait thinking that we would just do Buck,” said Hennessey, causing both women to chuckle. Eventually, she measured the living room wall and was painting a whole series of Lenth’s beloved dogs.
“Why didn’t I just hang a picture of a dog in a frame? I don’t know,” Lenth reflected. “When Becca would bring one, I’d say, ‘Do you mind? Can you do these two?’ I was always so scared to ask.”
Lenth admits critiquing Hennessey’s paintings at first, correcting for noses not quite right or dogs too fat on one side. “It only took one time at her painting class for me to realize what I was making this woman do,” Lenth laughed. “I’m trying to paint a stupid Santa Claus and going, ‘Bring on more wine!’ What I learned from it is the talent it must take to be able to put something on a board and make it look real - to take scenery and make it come alive.”
“I got used to her talent and knew that she could do it, but I didn’t know how moving a portrait like that can be if it’s done with that talent and with the feeling that I have in here for an animal,” said Lenth with a hand on her heart.
“I never expected it would affect somebody like it did her when I started painting again,” Hennessey told The Press. She delivered the final painting in the series last week, a portrait of the two young pups River and Paisley. “She’s come a long way in the last two years,” the painter remarked.
Since the project began, Lenth has rejoined her church and has started taking day trips with female friends. Through her relationships with her dogs, the undertaking of a new project, and her friendship with the artist, Lenth began to heal. Of her new friend, Lenth says, “A lot of my progress was because she listened.”
Photo by the author.