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Capturing the Spirit of Their Models

Rani Khamphilavong does wonders with a little bit of mesh, masking tape, foil, gesso, acrylic paint, and plaques, turning those simple, raw materials into adorable 3-D sculpture portraits of pets.

“I was looking for cost-efficient materials,” said the Oakland artist, holding up a work in progress to reveal the basic mesh form as she unpacked her neatly organized art from boxes to arrange for display. “I love working with my hands.”

The bubbly dark-haired woman has been perfecting her technique over the last two years. At first, she turned out wall art of all kinds of animals, but she switched to pet portraits after two she did for her boss got raves. The sculptures resemble papier mâché, but they are masking tape and paint atop the mesh. The heads are crafted from squishable, super-pliable foil so Khamphilavon can get every wrinkle, ear fold, and expression just right.

Khamphilavon, 26, works for the Piedmont Avenue artisan jeweler Philippa Roberts, where Khamphilavon “wears a lot of hats,” photographing her boss’ exquisite art, doing website and graphic design, helping out in the studio, and even working the sales floor. Customers noticed Khamphilavon’s cute, clever portraits of Roberts’ dogs, Rosie and Scout, hanging at the space and wanted their own.

“I can do any dog,” she said, admitting, however, that long-haired and fluffier breeds are more challenging. “I have to paint in the hair.” Her portfolio indeed masterfully depicts all dog types, from puggles, dachshunds, and cockapoos to pitbulls, Frenchies, Weimaraners, and then some.

Initially, Khamphilavon incorporated elaborate, laborious paper-cut accents on wood to create an appropriate scene for her sticking-out canine subject—greenery, roses, feathers, perhaps. They took a long time to complete. Now, she adheres the sculptures to premade plaques that are often painted to compliment the pop-out pooches. As a finishing touch, she adds a unique bit of whimsy by painting a crown, bone, heart, paw print, biscuit, or initial, for instance, to personalize the artwork. The pieces are lightweight yet sturdy and shippable. They are mostly impervious to normal indoor elements, though she cautioned, “I wouldn’t hang them in the bathroom or anything.”

Shadow; and that’s Buddy at the top.


To do the portrait sculptures, Khamphilavon works from photographs if she has to, and she says “the more the better.” She much prefers to interact with the pet in person so she can pick up quirks, personality traits, and proclivities to play with in her representation.

One of her very memorable pieces is of Lima Bean, a portrait a golden retriever that loved dragging big branches around. Khamphilavon shows the smiling, fluffy-tailed adult mouthing a leafy trunk that reaches out way beyond the borders of the plaque. A tiny lima bean is painted adopt the perky pup’s head.

Typically, these works of art are 3 inches by 5 inches or 5 inches by 8 inches, and making one takes Khamphilavon about two weeks. They sell for about $80 for the small ones and $100 to $200 for the larger size.

She holds a BFA in illustration from the California College of Arts and is equally talented in illustration and digital art, but the medium of sculpture and craft is where she is headed now. She took it up with the encouragement of friends and peers in ceramics and paper arts, and word of mouth is how she is spreading the word about her current portrait sculptures. She is an Oregon native, and while Khamphilavon’s companion is an orange tabby, Luigi, 17, whom she adores, she loves dogs, too, and dog sits for special friends when she can. That way, she said, she enjoys the pleasure of dog ownership without the responsibility.

Her name, Rani Khamphilavong, is pronounced Rainy Comfy-la-voan, and here are few more fun facts about her gleaned from her website: “Teal Admirer. Rain Powered. Cat Enthusiast.”

See more of her work at She can be reached by email,, or phone, 503-709-4477.

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Main article photo by: Sculptures by Rani Khamphilavong, photos by Lance Yamamoto