Emotions unleashed

Canine: An artist's life-size drawings of his former pet preserve loving memories.

October 25, 2001|By Laura Cadiz | Laura Cadiz,SUN STAFF

Three years ago, Ephraim Rubenstein and his family were looking for a dog that would help fill their large plantation house in historic Ellicott City.

"A poodle wasn't going to hack it," Rubenstein said.

They chose a Great Dane puppy, named Agamemnon, with black and white makings in a pattern that resembled a tuxedo. The puppy had huge paws and would stumble over them while walking.

But as the dog grew, he became overbearing. Despite the family's efforts to control the 170-pound animal, he was returned to his breeder in West Virginia.

Now Rubenstein's relationship with the dog and his feelings of loss are reflected in his art exhibit, "Agamemnon," in Sheppard Art Gallery in Ellicott City. Most of the 16 black-and-white drawings are presented in a life-size format, showing the enormity of the canine that would put its paws on Rubenstein's shoulders and lick him in the face.

"It was a terrible decision, but sometimes you have to make tough decisions," Rubenstein, 45, said of giving up Agamemnon. "It was heart-wrenching."

After Rubenstein realized he would have to return Agamemnon to the breeder in the spring, he began "obsessively" drawing the dog. The entire exhibit, which opened Oct. 20 and runs through Nov. 26, took him about five months to complete.

Rubenstein said he wanted to surround viewers with the presence of the dog, giving them an idea of what it would be like to live with a creature of its size. The exhibit includes drawings of Agamemnon lying on a couch, on a porch and in a kitchen.

"He was so big and so impressive, you just assumed he was a god of some sort," Rubenstein said. "We just all thought it was a privilege to live with something of that size."

Rubenstein did not want to create artwork that was sentimental or "sugar-coated." He wanted to show an honest portrayal of a powerful animal. Some of the drawings show restraints such as a collar and leash on the dog.

"If he saw a squirrel go by, and I wasn't paying attention, he'd knock me over," Rubenstein said.

Rebecca Weber, the gallery's owner, likened the relationship the drawings portray between the artist and the dog to that of a parent and a child.

"These are a real honest investigation of how the dog fits in the home," Weber said. "It's very intimate."

Some of the drawings are based on photographs; others were drawn from live poses and would sometimes take weeks or months to complete because Rubenstein would have to wait for Agamemnon to return to the position in which he started drawing the dog.

The drawings are a use of mixed media, with some created in pencil, others in charcoal or using a wax-resist method, in which the wax is used like a white crayon. A former New Yorker, Rubenstein is an instructor at the Art Students League of New York and Maryland Institute College of Art.

The response to the exhibit has been strong. Passers-by on Main Street are enticed into the gallery by the drawings of the enormous dog that are in the window. Drivers turn their heads and stare at the artwork as they sit at the traffic light in front of the gallery.

People throughout the Baltimore-Washington area have called, inquiring about the drawings, after driving past the gallery, Weber said. Three pieces were sold before the show opened, and some people have bought prints of the drawings.

Weber was so excited about the exhibit that while driving past Patterson Park in Baltimore the day before the opening, she saw a man walking a black-and-white Great Dane. She pulled over to hand him a catalog of the drawings.

"Each one just had its own personality," Weber said of the drawings. "[Rubenstein] was bringing out a whole other aspect of the dog."

Rubenstein has displayed his artwork at Sheppard Art Gallery at other times, most recently exhibiting another single-subject show. In February, the gallery showed his oil paintings and graphite drawings of roses, which were inspired by early 20th-century German poet Rainer Maria Rilke.

But Rubenstein's current exhibit evokes a mix of emotions for him, his wife and their two daughters, ages 14 and 16. The "Agamemnon" exhibit is a "double-edged sword," by both preserving the family's loving memory of the dog but also stirring up the feelings of loss.

"They love it," he said. "But they're very sad to see it."

Sheppard Art Gallery is at 8173 Main St., Ellicott City. Hours are from 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. Information: 410-461-1616.

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