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The Picasso of Post-Its: Pandemic Pet Portraits

Ed Attanasio, whose work began as stroke therapy, has found a new audience


Part of the Vitality Arts Special Report

Post-It notes have played an unexpected role in Ed Attanasio’s journey as an artist, which began unexpectedly, in 2009, after he suffered a stroke.

A business writer for 35 years who owned a small marketing communications firm in the San Francisco Bay Area (which he started with no art training), Attanasio, now 62, found his stroke “scrambled his brain” so he couldn’t write anymore.

“It was scary. I had worked so hard on my writing, but now it was gone,” he said.

During speech therapy to learn to speak again, Attanasio doodled. A therapist recommended daily activity to strengthen his brain, and suggested he use Post-Its. Attanasio would doodle for hours at home.

After his 14-month recovery, his then-wife presented him with a notebook of about 400 of his drawings that she saved.

“A lot of crazy stuff, from dogs to monsters. It’s definitely outsider art,” Attanasio explains.

When COVID-19 hit, he lost all of his business clients overnight, and resumed drawing on Post-Its. Pet portraits were a natural fit since Attanasio had become a fan of older pets.

“My ex-wife got me into adopting senior dogs, who were amazing. We heard we’d be saddled with lots of medical bills, but weren’t. We had a chihuahua mix who was deaf, all his teeth needed pulling, who belonged to a meth dealer who died,” says Attanasio. “We were told, ‘If he lives a year, it’ll be a miracle.’ We had him for ten years.”

Artist Ed Attanasio and a collection of his pet portraitsCredit: Courtesy of Ed Attanasio
Artist Ed Attanasio and a collection of his pet portraits

Portraits for Pet Parents

Since April, Attanasio has done Post-It pet portraits for free “to bring happiness to pet owners all over the world, one drawing at a time.”

Pet owners first send him a photograph. To create the pet portraits, he draws whimsical, cartoon-like pictures inside drawn wooden frames with colored pencils and black felt-tip pens on three-square-inch Post-It notes, then mounts them on card stock. In return, pet owners are merely asked to make a donation to the pet rescue group of their choice.

Attanasio snail-mails the drawings in colorful envelopes with a PPP (Pandemic Pet Project) logo, and people send him postage afterward.

Initially, he emailed them. “But people like originals. They asked what I’m doing with the original art,” says Attanasio.

Since April, Attanasio has done Post-It pet portraits for free “to bring happiness to pet owners all over the world, one drawing at a time.”

After his first Facebook post about the Pandemic Pet Project, word got around. Things snowballed. “I do at least four a day, rain or shine (or smoke),” says Attanasio, referring to the region’s many recent wildfires.

His work has generated high praise from even his youngest customers.

“A friend of mine said his kids were bouncing off the walls due to COVID, and asked if I could draw a portrait of his Boston Terrier. His little girl said, ‘My dog is not blue.’ Then her brother said, ‘I read about this in school — he’s like Picasso,’” Attanasio says.

So far, he’s done over 500  pet portraits for proud pet parents in 20 states including Hawaii and Alaska, and in countries including Taiwan, the Netherlands, Australia, Italy, England, Ireland, Canada and Mexico.

By Day 100, his portraits raised over $20,000 for animal rescue groups, Attansio estimates, but he hasn’t really kept track since. “It’s a giving thing. Some folks suggested doing an Excel spreadsheet, but I don’t bother,” he says.

A Surprising Reaction

Julie Stiefel, who lives in San Francisco, had three portraits done of her dog, Arnold (“his DNA shows he’s American Eskimo, Chihuahua, Pomeranian, Poodle, Rat Terrier and Lhasa Apso — a true mutt!”) and his two cat brothers.

“Ed is so generous, an amazing talent and an all-around great guy,” she says. Stiefel adopted Arnold from Muttville, a rescue group for senior dogs to whom Attanasio donated bigger artworks for their auctions, and she donated to Saving Grace, a rescue group for special-needs kittens at risk for being euthanized.

Attanasio has been surprised by the reaction to his pandemic art.

“One guy donated one thousand dollars who doesn’t even have a pet,” says Attanasio. “One woman wanted portraits of her six cats, and sent a photo; they were all black, and looked exactly alike. I said I should meet them to watch them interact, maybe by Zoom. She was mulling it over, but I was just kidding. She donated one hundred dollars per cat to a group.”

Not Just Pets, But Ballplayers

Before COVID-19 hit, and pre-pet Post-It art, Attanasio’s large collages sold for thousands of dollars; they are found in galleries in the U.S. (KALEID in San Jose), Russia, Germany, the U.K. and Australia.

“My most popular-selling print is Pets and Their People, a collage of forty-eight fictional pets and their owners,” Attansio says. “Owners often start to look like their pets.” (It’s on his website, along with collages of birds, lizards, couples in therapy and hoodlums in hats.)

His first sale to a gallery, for $3,000 in 2012, astounded him. It was a collage, depicting 48 fictional baseball players featuring their nicknames and hometowns, real-life spots like Sweet Lips, Tenn. and Nuttsville, Va.

A baseball nut (he’s interviewed retired players for the Society of Baseball Research Oral History Committee), Attanasio heard a baseball art exhibit was to be held at San Francisco’s George Krevsky Gallery of American Art. So he submitted his collage, which sold even before the exhibit began.

Raising money on behalf of animals is something Attanasio has always wanted to do.

Attanasio also co-authored a graphic novel, Bushers: Ballplayers Drawn From Left Field, based on the exhibit.

After 2012, his art career blossomed. Mark Ulriksen, a local magazine illustrator of many covers for The New Yorker (and winner of the 2015 Independent Publisher Book Award for a book about dogs) referred him around.

A Russian gallery accepted Attanasio because of the poster for an elephant advocacy group he spearheaded years before, featuring artists from all over the world. At the time, he told the Russian artists about his own budding art career.

Bringing Joy During Difficult Times

Raising money on behalf of animals is something Attanasio has long wanted to do, and the Pandemic Pet Portraits allow him to do it.

“Most artists are poor,” he said. “But if they can use their art for causes, it’s a powerful thing.”

Of his humble, non-threatening medium, the yellow sticky, which easily lends itself to casual art, Attanasio says, “It’s not a big piece of real estate.”

But it’s enough. The Post-It notes have offered joy to people coping in challenging and confusing times.

“You are currently the talk of our team in work. Since lockdown/shelter-in-place restrictions, we have been having weekly Zoom ‘show and tell’ meetings where each of us shows a prized item in their home,” wrote Paddy Rusk from the U.K. “Last week, a colleague showed a collage of your art he purchased in San Jose.”

Inspired by Attanasio’s art, one of Rusk’s colleagues in New Jersey discovered the Pandemic Pet Project. And Rusk got a portrait of his dog, Nyx.

As one woman shared with Attanasio, “During COVID I was getting depressed. But every day I wake up and look at your new four-pack of pets on Facebook — it makes my day.”

Dory and her drawingCredit: Courtesy of Ed Attanasio
Dory and her drawing

 

Sharon McDonnell
By Sharon McDonnell
Sharon McDonnell is a San Francisco-based travel and food/beverage writer who's whale-watched in the Azores, ridden a camel in Morocco, seen the Northern Lights in Alaska and taken cooking classes from India to Thailand.

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