From a distance, they look like the stuffy portraits you’d see hanging in an art museum. If you didn’t take a second glance, you might miss that it’s not a round-faced, wig-wearing man you’re looking at — it’s a pug.
A collection of animal portraits by artist Dana Aldis hang on the back wall at the Blue Lantern Coffee House in Lewiston. Adorned in the bowler hats, monocles and fancy frills of the steampunk style, each have become a character of their own.
Aldis, originally from West Virginia, moved to Moscow in 2011 and to Lewiston a couple years later. She has been painting for years, but it wasn’t until after getting her master’s of fine arts at the New York Academy of Art that Aldis realized that pet portraits were what she most liked.
“I was all over the place, I still am, but I keep going back to animal portraits,” Aldis said.
The costumes, however, are something new. The idea came last year after Blue Lantern owner Dawn Abbott asked her to consider a steampunk spin on the show she had agreed to do for September. Aldis was hesitant, but said she’d think about it.
“It’s not my real style, I didn’t think I could do it,” Aldis explained. However, when she got the idea to add costume pieces to animal portraits — something she’d never done before — Aldis got excited.
Only nine portraits are hanging, but the series includes five dogs and five cats, each a different breed. Early on in the project, Aldis partnered with local artist Deon Douglass, who specializes in faux finishes for walls and decor. Douglass created 10 panels with unique finishes that serve as a background for each portrait.
“Because of the variations, each piece is one-of-a-kind,” Aldis said. “I can’t recreate it.”
Hours of research went into the costumes, which are derived from art history, steampunk fashion and even a friend in Seattle, whose tie-tying expertise inspired the serpentine knot worn by the pug. With the costume comes an implied narrative, revealing a character Aldis wanted to portray.
“As I was working, I kept asking, ‘Who is this person? Who is this character?’ ” Aldis said.
The whimsical work stands in contrast to her more traditional pieces that hang on the opposite wall. Not only have the steampunk portraits been fun to work on, but she’s found the pieces have been popular among buyers.
After all, art sales are how professional artists make their money and now, with the recent closing of the Creative Shop, there’s one less venue in which to do it. Aldis was one of its founding members.
The artist co-op, which opened two years ago, was an “experiment” and “good idea” Aldis said, but she explained that ultimately it was not sustainable. Still, she believes the shop served it’s purpose for a time in making art more accessible to the community.
“I think the Creative Shop will live on in different variations,” said Aldis, noting there are other venues where she and the other artists are able to show and sell their work.
And in the meantime, she and her fellow artists are looking optimistically to the future.
“Let’s see what other trouble we can get into,” Aldis said, laughing.
Aldis’ work is on display through Nov. 5 at the Blue Lantern, 326 Main St.