Saturday, March 18, 2017

Unfinished Portraits

There was a woman. 

Her name was Eileen.

Duke by Eileen Potts Dawson
She sent me an unsolicited portrait of my sweet four-legged boy, Duke, shortly after his passing two years ago this month (see: The Kindness of Strangers). 

No request for money. Not even reimbursement for the matting or postage to ship it to me. 

Her only motivation: make the world a better place by sharing her art. 

Eileen’s art consisted of countless pet portraits that managed to capture each subject’s unique trait—their imploring eyes, that crooked smile, whatever it was that made each of them so loveable to their humans. 

Months after hanging Duke’s portrait in our home, our ornery rescue Dachshund, Jack, equal parts decrepit and endearing, passed. Without Duke as his guide dog, our blind, deaf and incontinent little guy had lost his way. And by way I mean marbles.

We gave Jack the best transition to the Great Beyond that we could: a five-egg cheese omelet, a fireside nap despite August temperatures in the 80s, and a home-visit from the Dr. Kevorkian of the pet world, Home to Heaven, who, with great tenderness and compassion, helped him cross the portal into life’s next big adventure.  

A week or so later, another unsolicited portrait by Eileen arrived. Jack—sans cataracts—looking every bit the 12-pound badass that he was.

Jack-Jack by Eileen Potts Dawson

Eileen and I developed a friendship, albeit from a distance. I sent her clients for her art. She sent me edits for my latest novel manuscript that features a dog as its protagonist (and even gave me a much better title, which I’ve since adopted). We both sent each other comedic election memes that kept us laughing instead of crying over the political climate of our country. And inspiring dog rescue videos when the political memes weren't enough.

Not All Projects Come to Completion
In December, when the Great Dane belonging to family friends passed away, I sent Eileen a check and a photo and asked her to work her magic. Because Eileen had already gifted me two portraits, I insisted she accept payment for this one. 

A month later, when the check still hadn’t been cashed, I emailed her, playfully chiding her for being so stubborn about accepting payment. The response I got stunned me.

"The truth is I'm not doing so well. Rose will be here on the 12th and I'm hoping she will get me going so I can do one more portrait."

Eileen had already shared her recent ALS diagnosis with me and I knew she’d left her 9-to-5 with the Madison public school system to focus on health. But it never occurred to me how swiftly ALS could fuck a person up. I insisted she forget about the portrait for my friends, but she said it brought her joy to do her art and so she was hoping she could complete this one for me.

A couple weeks later, Eileen’s sister, Rose, with whom I’d also become online friends, flew to Wisconsin to help her. She found Eileen so weak she had to be carried from her bed to her couch and back to her bed each day. She could no longer speak at all. With Rose's encouragement, Eileen managed to eat one piece of bacon and a bit of baby food—the most she’d eaten in days. 

Twenty-four hours later, Valentine’s Day, Eileen was gone.

It didn’t take long before people began posting their pets’ portraits, compliments of Eileen, on her Facebook page, a makeshift memorial to a talented artist and a generous soul.

It’s likely that Eileen donated and gifted more portraits than she sold because her heart was far stronger than her capitalistic instincts. If she was touched by the story of a cat or dog—usually a rescue animal—she poured that emotion into her art. And then sent that art to the humans associated with each portrait subject, regardless of whether or not she knew them.

I believe this was Eileen’s way of confirming that these pets had touched more lives than their humans knew.

And by doing what she did best—sharing her talent and compassion with the world—Eileen herself touched more lives than she knew.

You will be missed, friend. Woof!

Eileen Potts Dawson
1947 - 2017


  1. Got me crying on this one. What a sweet lady <3

    1. Sweet doesn't begin to describe. We lost a good one in Eileen. xo

  2. Lauren, I first want to say that Eileen's story is amazing and warms my heart to hear about the gifts of her art that she gave so many people. I also want to say thank you so very much for trying to have a portrait of Rosie made. That is incredibly awesome of you. Was totally caught by surprise when I saw her photo on Eileen's desk in your photo. We miss her so very much. Thank you Lauren!

    1. Rosie was such a cool dog, Michael. I was so hoping to surprise you guys with a keepsake from Eileen, as was she. ALS can suck it. <3