Location: Asheville, NC
Angela Alexander’s iconic dog portraits adorn many walls in Asheville, North Carolina. It is impossible to walk around downtown Asheville without spotting them in store windows or, as was the case with us when we spent a weekend there this fall, in the lobby of your hotel. They are so prolific that it is hard to believe she did not start painting – not just commercially or on commission, but just painting of any kind – until sixteen years ago. It also turns out that Angela is self-taught. She has never taken an art class, not even in high school. “When I was in school, you either went the band route or the art route,” she says. “I played the saxophone.”
I met Angela because I reached out to her to see if she could do her magic with a painting of Darcy as a Christmas present for David. Her response was that she was already on a wait list for this year, but she moved me up it when I sent her the blog I wrote about Darcy. Underlying her art is a fierce love of dogs and she responded to my love for Darcy on a “we are both crazy dog people” level. She is pictured here holding the portrait she made of Mr. Darcy that will now adorn our living room wall and make the house feel a little less empty without him here to greet us in it. Angela also took a high-resolution photo of the painting and had it reproduced on a metal plate that I was able to give to Hannah as a bonus gift. Both were huge hits.
And it blows me away that Angela’s gift – her ability to capture the essence of a dog (or the other animals she paints, such as cows and pigs) and its likeness but add her own distinctive style – is something that surfaced by sheer chance. Angela is yet another embodiment of something good coming from something bad because her painting career was born the day she fell down the stairs. It is something that has taken her by surprise as well. “Sixteen years ago, if you had told me that people would pay for something I painted, I would have laughed,” she says. “Not just a little, but hysterically.”
She had moved to Asheville in the summer of 1997 after visiting some friends for a New Year’s Eve party and realizing this was her place and these were her people. She got a job doing graphic design for a small refrigeration company and started doing stained glass as a hobby. She sold her creations at Asheville’s Kress Emporium (a collection of individual artist booths) as an extra source of income and as a fun creative outlet. Just after Christmas in 2003, Angela’s fall down the stairs put an end to her glass cutting because she couldn’t stand up. She had some simple craft paints from Michael’s (a craft store) and she started doing caricatures of her two chihuahuas just to entertain herself. Her friends loved what she drew and encouraged her to put them on cards. She offered the cards for sale at her store and they sold, as did prints she did of her dog caricatures. Before long, she stopped doing the glass and focused exclusively on the dog prints.
Angela’s current style stemmed from her early caricatures but has evolved and transformed quite a bit. Her work started more as pop art and she always added a funny, pun-based title for each of her comical drawings. Career highlights and stepping stones on the road to her current level of success and fame include being asked to exhibit in St. Louis’s AKC Museum of the Dog in 2009, her first commissioned piece (“That was very motivating for me to keep doing what I was doing,” she says) and painting her parents dachshund, Chloe. Chloe’s ears used to flop out like she was flying so Angela painted her that way and titled the painting “I believe I can fly.” It was the sale of those cards – which still sell well – that really launched her painting career.
Much of her work is commissioned but she also does original work for galleries and other displays. She owns all the copyrights so that she can reproduce the paintings and she makes an effort to keep the titles generic so that they will appeal to more people and not be dependent on knowing the dog featured in the portrait. She paints other animals too (“People go crazy about pigs,” she says) but she only paints them when she is moved to do so. “I don’t paint them because I think people will buy them,” she says. “I paint them because I like them.”
Angela’s fall down the stairs was not the only hardship she endured that impacted her art and her career. The evolution of her artistic style also stems from some additional physical challenges she faces and must accommodate in her art. Angela was diagnosed with Type 1 Diabetes when she was 21 years old and suffers from diabetic macular edema as a result. She went through a scary and intense treatment phase of frequent eye injections but is now on a maintenance level to keep the three micro aneurisms in her right eye from leaking fluid and to keep her blood sugar under control. “I am so grateful for all of my devices that tell me my numbers constantly,” Angela says.
In 2015, Angela was also diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis. The pain was so debilitating that her doctor told her to give painting a break. She did not pick up a paintbrush for 10 days and while her arthritis improved, she felt like she was going crazy. So she decided to try painting in a new style, one that used bigger brushes and larger strokes and was not as meticulous and tight. “I had to recreate myself,” Angela says, something she first did out of necessity (“This style is much more forgiving,” she says) but continues to do because she sees that as an important part of being not just an artist, but a human being. “I am still learning,” Angela says. “Hopefully we all are.”
When Angela’s health challenges presented her with what felt like an insurmountable hurdle, she regrouped. “I remember thinking ‘my vision and my hands – what the hell?’” Angela says. Her hand and elbow hurt so badly they would go numb. But she changed her style and reinvented herself and the result is a whole new level of success. “When people ask me what my style is,” Angela says, “I tell them it is a gift.”
Angela also credits her former partner, who really believed in what Angela was doing and, says Angela, “afforded me the time to do what I needed to do.” She also points to her own furry menagerie as inspiration for her paintings. Angela pays it forward by donating a portion of certain sales (such as the paintings that sell at the Aloft Hotel, where David and I admired her work) to rescue groups and she often donates pieces to silent auctions or other benefits for nonprofits helping animals. “Some people foster or go to shelters to walk the dogs,” Angela says. “This is how I make a difference.”
She says she feels more pressure with commissioned works when the pets are deceased, but she also finds those sales the most heartwarming. In the end, she just wants her art to make people happy. “Life is challenging enough,” Angela says. “So it is important to surround yourself with stuff that makes you happy. That is what Inspires me to keep trying.”
Rest assured that your rendition of our beloved Mr. Darcy, in vibrant colors and strokes to match the love and joy he brought into the world and into our lives, has most definitely made us happy. And thanks to Angela, I got a big win in the gift giving department this year.
For more information or to check out more of Angela’s art: