A Stirring Memorial


Artist paints portraits of dogs who have lost their lives, advocating for a no-kill solution

By Eve Becker

It all began when Mark Barone and Marina Dervan set out to adopt a dog. While on their search, they were appalled to discover that more than 5,000 dogs are killed each day in shelters across the United States. Deeply disturbed by this horrifying statistic, the couple not only rescued Gigi, a beautiful 1-year-old dog with a sweet disposition and little time left, but they decided to take action through art to advocate for a no-kill solution.

Act of Dog Mural“In addition to finding a dog, we found out all these atrocious facts about the current shelter system in America,” Dervan says. “It was overwhelming and we both felt absolutely powerless to do anything. Then we realized that the only ones who are powerless are the animals. They don’t have a voice.”

Barone, a successful artist based in Louisville, KY, pledged to honor the dogs who lost their lives by painting powerful portraits of them. To show the scale of the problem, he set out to paint 5,500 portraits—the average number of dogs killed in shelters on a typical day­—due mostly to overcrowding. He and Dervan dropped all other work, cashed in three IRAs, and have dedicated themselves to their project, An Act of Dog.

Every day, Barone prints out photos from DogsInDanger.com or other sources and captures each animal’s soul in a stirring memorial. Starting in May 2011 and painting about 10 portraits a day, Barone is almost halfway through his mission. Although the portraits are of dogs, Barone and Dervan are striving for all animals in shelters to be saved.

The goal is to create a memorial for the animals, so they won’t be forgotten. According to Barone, the process is emotionally wrenching. “It’s difficult going into [the studio] every day because I want to at least try to connect with each of these animals in some way. That’s the only way I can paint with any meaning. You give up a little bit of your soul every day when you go in there, but I think it’s worth it,” he says. “There’s something comforting about it too for me, with all the dogs around me when I’m painting, but something sad at the same time.”

When the project is completed, the 5,500 paintings will stretch two football fields long and stand 10 feet high. “It gives people an idea of the magnitude of the project,” Dervan says. “When you’re standing in the exhibit, you’re standing in just one day’s worth. It’s a real visceral, emotional experience. We intend for it to move people to action, just like it did for us.”

Act of Dog Triptych“We want to pay homage to these wonderful animals whose lives every day are needlessly taken,” she says. “We want to ensure that they don’t die in vain. This is our way of waking up the nation to collectively be a part of this change, because that is what it’s going to take.” The couple wants to create awareness and inspire counties across the country to move to a no-kill solution. They are seeking sponsors to raise $20 million—going directly to no-kill shelters, rescue groups, and spay/neuter costs—reflecting their firm belief that money needs to be donated at a local level.

Barone was inspired by the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, in Washington, D.C., with its elongated black walls etched with name after name.“It’s a really moving monument. It just blows you away, because you look at the size of that wall and you look at the size of those names and you look at how long that wall is. That was the same sort of intention I had with the 5,500,” he says. “It’s very important to me to capture it in such a way that there’s some reverence involved with this.”

Both Barone and Dervan burn intensely with passion for the project. They are talking to several cities about donating space to house a permanent museum that would exhibit the portraits and educate the public about the no-kill solution. Simultaneously, they’re filming a documentary about the number of dogs being put to death in shelters, and celebrating everyday heroes, from politicians to rescue groups to volunteers, pushing for a no-kill solution.

“I’m real proud of what we’ve done so far,” Barone says. “It’s really amazing the people who have connected with this and how supportive they are. When people find out about the project, they’re very moved by it. I don’t think I’ve had a dry eye leave my studio.”

Please visit AnActOfDog.org to learn more.

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