City-run animal shelters are not known for cutting-edge artwork, but the Oakland Animal Services shelter is becoming an arts destination, thanks to the efforts of Bay Area artists who have come together to make the space more welcoming with colorful animal murals.
“I thought a trip to the shelter would be heartbreaking, but the murals made the environment more dynamic and joyful. It looks awesome,” said recent visitor Mariel Bayona, who was surprised to see the murals.
Although bringing animal-centric art to OAS has been a group effort, artist Nancy Mizuno Elliott deserves a lot of thanks for what she has named the PAW POWER! Mural Project.
Elliott was a new volunteer at Oakland Animal Services last spring, when she took a look at the bare walls and knew where she could make the biggest difference. With no funding but the approval of shelter director Rebecca Katz, Elliott spearheaded a transformation, recruiting nine fellow Bay Area mural artists to donate their time and materials to a pup art makeover.
The results have been striking at the shelter, which is housed in a 1990s structure designed in a functional style that is geared toward easy maintenance. As visitors walk up to the entrance, two huge murals jump out like Warhol pop art. Cats chase butterflies on the eastern shores of Lake Merritt in a piece by Robert Minervini, an Oakland artist known for his urban landscapes. Inspired by his own beloved tabby cat, Minervini features his pet prominently in the mural along with big block letters showing the initials of the shelter, “OAS,” which is how insiders refer to Oakland Animal Services.
The second outdoor mural greeting visitors is a larger-than-life dog painted by David Polka, a designer and artist known for his bold lines and street-art following. This piece conjures up the hopes and dreams of shelter dogs as they move on to their forever homes. Polka seems an especially appropriate person to encapsulate the emotions that swirl around at the shelter as he has recently risen from the ashes of injuries he received when he was hit by a car while riding his bike.
Staff and volunteers work hard to transform animals into beloved household pets, whether they, like Polka, have been injured or are just down on their luck. A new full-time vet provides medical attention. Volunteers walk and socialize animals and photographers take portraits of new arrivals to appeal to people searching for pets online.
The indoor murals have transformed spaces that were previously dour. One room, reserved for meet-and-greets with puppies, was formerly painted a harsh yellow. The walls have been repainted a baby blue with a comic book style mural designed by Laurel Nathanson showing a dog’s fantasy world filled with beach balls and a squirrel under a rainbow.
The models for many of the animals in the murals came from the artists’ own pets. Elliott’s dog Bug, a senior Chihuahua, is the centerpiece of a mural in the lobby. Under Bug’s graying muzzle the words “Adopt – Donate — Volunteer” are painted, offering suggestions for how visitors can help the shelter.
The ultimate goal of the PAW POWER! Mural Project is to boost adoptions by making the shelter a more pleasant place to visit. The uplifting imagery and gallery-quality artwork has affected visitors as well as staff and volunteers.
“When I look up at these murals, I’m reminded of love and hope. And I remember why I continue to return to the shelter,” said volunteer Trish Roque. As word gets out that the shelter is an inspiring place to visit, the artists expect their art will save lives.
The completion of phase 1 was marked in April by a celebration at the shelter. Artists involved in the project include Claire Brees, Renee Castro, Claude Förster, Russel de Leon, and Michael Wertz. A Crowdrise campaign has raised 70 percent of the $5,000 goal, which will be used to reimburse artists for materials and provide them with a small stipend to compensate them for their time. More help is needed to finance phase 2, which includes plans for several more murals.
To see the murals, visit Oakland Animal Services at 1101 29th Ave., Oakland. You can support the project by contributing funds here: www.crowdrise.com/paw-power-mural-project-at-oakland-animal-services/
Pipi Ray Diamond is a volunteer at Oakland Animal Services and a professional pet photographer serving the San Francisco Bay Area. See more of her work at SoulfulPetPhotography.com.
Nancy Mizuno Elliott’s mural, top, features her dog Bug.
David Polka’s outdoor mural, below, is colorful and whimsical.
Artists Nancy Mizuno Elliott and Laurel Nathanson pose with their dogs Bonnie, Bailey, and Bug, below.
Main article photo by: Pipi Ray Diamond, Soulful Pet Photography, also the photographer of the other images