East Falls artist pursues career in canine portraits as seen in White Dog CafeArt hangs in White Dog Cafes in Haverford and University City
By Linda Stein firstname.lastname@example.org / Apr 24, 2017
Philadelphia >> Step into Jay McClellan’s world and you know you’ve entered the East Falls studio of a dog lover. Not only are his three dogs in attendance, but most of the large paintings that grace his space depict canines. And the dogs are so vividly portrayed that they seem ready to jump from the canvass and give you a lick or at least a sniff.
McClellan, 40, with his soft Southern drawl and friendly manner, is charmingly modest about his apparent talent. A third generation artist, McClellan grew up in Arkansas and had a successful career in the graphic design industry, when his mother, Vicki McClellan, died of pancreatic cancer.
Then in his 20s, McClellan, who had known since he was a child that he wanted to create art, came to the conclusion that he needed to leave his lucrative job as an art director and take the leap into the world of fine art.
“My father (Ken McClellan) is a painter,” McClellan said. His father is known regionally in the South for watercolors but also had a graphic design and advertising business “that took over his life.” His paternal grandmother also painted. “She learned how to paint through her local community center,” he said. “In her day, she told me, women weren’t artists and they didn’t go to art school.”
McClellan had attended an art magnet school in Little Rock, but life was not easy after his parents divorced. His mother worked hard to make ends meet and take care of McClellan and his younger brother.
After she died, “Something in my soul said, you know what, I didn’t want to pursue making work in a commercial sense any more. I wanted to paint, basically. Growing up, you took the safe route, the route where you knew there would be an income.
“My parents got divorced when I was pretty young and my mother always worked two or three jobs,” he said. “I knew I didn’t want to work as hard as she had to. And I knew I wanted something different. I knew I wanted to be more in control of my life and what I was doing. So the desire to create has always been there, ever since I was a child…It’s always been there. It’s just a matter of how and why I was doing it.”
So he applied to the Memphis College of Art and earned a bachelor’s in fine art in drawing, then went to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts (PAFA) in Philadelphia for a master’s degree in studio arts.
While he was in Memphis he found himself painting pictures of empty chairs, perhaps as a metaphor for the loss of his mother. A professor, Remy Miller, who he liked a lot, suggested that he paint something more positive.
“And I had these two dogs, Tip and Honey,” he said. There was no money for a dog when he was young, so he’d gotten the dogs after he grew up and left home. “And I had them from the time they were little and I invested a lot of emotional energy in them. I was young, 20 something, not in a relationship.”
Dogs became his favorite subject and dogs remain the mainstay of his work.
While he was at PAFA, McClellan had his first show at a gallery in University City. The show went well and the gallery owner offered to store his paintings, which were large, on the second floor.
“And I got a call saying their landlord had locked the building on them and they weren’t able to get back into the building,” McClellan said. “So, I got the police involved and the (building) owner. There were swinging doors on the second floor to outside and we were pushing the painting out, my friends and me, and a lady walked by and saw the one of Honey and she bought it right off the street. That was an interesting way to sell a painting.”
McClellan, who supported himself by working at an art supply store while he was a student, got a call from a gallery in Stone Harbor about the large painting of Tip. A young woman, Sydney Grims, wanted to buy it for her father, restaurateur Marty Grims. That is how the large portrait of Tip ended up in the White Dog Café, McClellan said. He met Marty Grims when he was delivering the 8-foot-by-7-foot picture and they struck up a friendship. Now the Grims own several of his dog paintings, which hang in both the University City location and the White Dog Café in Haverford.
“I first saw Jay’s paintings down the shore when I was riding my bike,” said Sydney Grims. “I saw this massive portrait of a dog in all bright colors and it caught my eye immediately...So I decided to pop in and have a look. I immediately fell in love with Tip. Being that we were opening up a new White Dog Cafe out in Haverford I thought it could be a great gift for my Dad...so I started saving money and a couple months later went back to the gallery and bought Tip for my Dad. Dad and I share a love not only for dogs but also loud colors. Jay isn’t afraid to mix and patterns and bright colors. His art is happy and I think that’s what has spoken to us the most.”
Since then, McClellan, who lives with his wife Stephanie, also an artist, in the East Falls section of Philadelphia, has painted numerous pictures of dogs, including many on commission. He’s also painted cats for baseball player Chase Utley, he said. And his works have been exhibited nationally as well as in private collections, winning awards including a Mabel Wilson Woodrow Fellowship Award at PAFA and honorable mention at the 45th Annual Delta Exhibition.
McClellan has a studio at his house and likes to work near his three dogs.
“... I like to work until I’m tired. I like to have the freedom to wake up and paint. I don’t like to have to go back and forth to a studio. Plus, I love being around the dogs.” While Tip has died, McClellan still has Honey, who is 17 now, Lucky, and 2-year-old Ava Belle, a bluetick coon hound, his first purebred dog. A painting of Ava Belle is on display at Harrah’s Casino in Chester.
McClellan prefers working with acrylic paint.
“Sometimes I put varnish on it,” he said. “The advancement of acrylics is topnotch these days. Paintings not varnished have a matte finish while varnish really makes it pop. I don’t really varnish them until I sell them. It’s the varnish that gives it the buttery look.”
When clients ask him to paint their dogs, he likes to get to know the dog, getting on the floor to play with it. He also tends to use vivid designs in the background of the painting, sometimes fanciful sometimes from the décor in the home. McClellan will take photographs of the dog and then make drawings as studies for the painting. He will show the client his design before beginning to paint, he said.
When painting for himself, McClellan finishes a canvas in a week or two. Paintings for clients take a month or more because of the consultation. Seven out of 10 of his commissioned paintings are 30-inches-by-40-inches and cost $1,800. Prices for his paintings range from $900 to $8,000, he said.
“In my large-scale paintings that often depict dogs, I explore the visual concept of ‘flat space’ by moving objects back and forth on the canvas’ two-dimensional plane, juxtaposing bold colors with graphic pattern and unique designs to excite my audience’s attention,” McClellan said. His style is inspired by modern and contemporary painters such as Alex Katz, David Hockney and Fairfield Porter, he said. “My large-scale paintings are inspired by my own dogs, my wife and my home. The calmness they bring me – and the happiness, as well – I want to paint those ideas and share them with the families and pets for whom I commission paintings.”
Many commissions come from customers at the White Dog Cafes who see his dog paintings and want one of their own, he said. Others are by word of mouth. He also receives emails from restaurant patrons telling him how much they enjoy his work and how much it means to them, he said. One woman wrote to tell him that her mother was going through a hard time and that seeing his pictures cheered her up.
In conversation, McClellan keeps returning to the topic of his dogs, which have “been real important” in his life, including while “courting Stephanie,” he said.
Stephanie McClellan, a native “Fallser” or East Falls resident, was an art student at the University of the Arts, when he worked at Utrecht Art Supplies. He waited on her and she wanted to meet him so she took a job for that company, too, and after a few months finally saw McClellan at a company holiday party in 2007.
“Jay was laying on the ground petting this big, giant dog,” she said. “Jay had pants that were, like, his pants were real short and he looked like a mess. He had a jean jacket with flames on it. We started talking. We both were painters...And that was it. We just talked the whole night. And we went out on a date the next week and we just stayed together ever since then.” The couple is expecting their first child in May.
In the summer, the McClellans enjoy visiting Maine and doing plein air painting together. For a change of pace, McClellan sometimes paints landscapes and said that he was very impressed with stone houses and buildings in the Philadelphia area, made from the Wissahickon schist. A painting that he did of a winter scene with a stone house on Rittenhouse Drive now hangs in a collector’s house in Santa Fe, he said.
“I love the physicality of big paintings,” said McClellan. “We went to Italy three years ago. I was painting large paintings of church ceilings there. But 99 percent of the time I do dog paintings.”
“It’s the therapeutic relationship people have with dogs,” he said. “That’s the kind of thing I’m trying to capture in these paintings.
“I like to be on a dog’s level,” McClellan adds. “ ... I like the idea of the dog being equal partnership. They’re family members. The thing about a dog is you invest a lot emotional energy in them. They give back love. Most of the time you have a human interaction, it’s give and take. With (dogs) they’re always giving to you. They all have personalities and habits. ... I like to paint them laying in bright colors and patterns I think that brings out the quality I most like about dogs. They teach me to slow down, enjoy simpler things.
“Those are lessons I’ve learned from dogs.”
McClellan is currently represented by Gravers Lane Gallery of Philadelphia, PA; Beacon Art ShortWave Gallery of Stone Harbor, NJ; DRAWL Southern Contemporary Art of Little Rock, AR and Northwest, AR; and Dog & Horse Fine Art & Portraiture in Charleston, SC. He also teaches at Philadelphia University, Delaware County Community College, Darlington Art Center and the Main Line Art Center.