When Art Meets Chickens

Robin: The Artist Formerly Known As Veterinarian

My mentor Dr Vicki Bowes, Avian Pathologist once accused me of being a bit of an online lurker. It was a comment made affectionately and not meant to be a criticism. I spend far too much time in Facebook chicken groups: learning about health issues, listening to rants, being surprised at the level of dissenting opinions on just about everything, yet still encouraged there are folks interested in improving the care of their birds.

Most of the time it’s the same old, but once in awhile I find something that sparks my interest and that’s when I reach out to the poster to entice them to work collaboratively with me. My latest venture is a series called ‘When Art Meets Chickens’, profiles of folks that are inspired by poultry in their art practice. Sometimes I curate several artists in one post, while other times I feel I have enough material for a stand alone article. The latter turned out to be the case when I messaged Robin in an online group.

She’d posted some of her artwork and I asked if she’d be interested in my art series. When she mentioned that she was a retired vet and had authored a book called Vet Noir I was hooked. A big fan of Scandinavian mysteries in the Nordic Noir genre, I envisioned Robin’s protagonist as a plucky vet-turned-detective like Nancy Drew. Then when I saw the subtitle “It’s Not The Pets, It’s The People Who Make Me Crazy” I realized it was clever play on Bête Noir, the French term meaning “a person or thing strongly detested or avoided”.

We chatted via email a couple of times and agreed that I’d do a article focused on her art work with a broader profile (including insight into her veterinary practice and writing) down the road.

I prefer to interview folks in person but given that I live off the west coast of Canada and Robin’s in eastern USA we settled on a Q&A format.

Who are you and what do you do?

Robin Truelove Stronk, DVM (Doctor of Veterinary Medicine). I graduated in 1975 from Cornell University and during my career I’ve treated most species. I started out in large animals, primarily dairy cattle and horses in Vermont but when I became allergic to cows I moved on to mixed practice. In 1982 my husband and I bought our own practice in Brattleboro, Vermont where he was the manager. We eventually had three other veterinarians working for us. We sold it in 2004 and I stayed on until 2007.

I have always been a sketcher and doodler. I took some art classes when our kids were young and got hooked on painting. That was the beginning. Now I am in a few local galleries but in the past have also been in two galleries in Costa Rica.

What’s your background?

My family moved all over during my youth. I went to 12, maybe 13, schools before I graduated from high school. We finally ended up in Connecticut and I figured a way to beg, borrow (but never steal) my way to having a horse of my own. I showed in 4-H and my leader’s husband was a beloved, idolized veterinarian who became my role model. As it turned out, I could not have chosen more wisely. Women were in the vast minority in vet schools when I applied. To my thrilled surprise I was accepted at my first choice school, Cornell. There were six women and 60 men in my class. I loved it; all of it.

How has your practice changed over time?

On the up side, veterinary practice got more sophisticated, more capabilities, more discoveries. On the down side, it became less personalized, more litigious, more specialized and (ugh) more corporate. I was the old time vet and did everything. I figured out a way to make things work. I referred to specialists when necessary but pride myself in some of the sophisticated procedures we did in our country practice.

As for art, my work has always been pretty representational. In the summer of 2003 I attended a weeklong seminar on the Isle of Shoals learning Biological Illustration. I was in heaven: instruction in the morning, creating the rest of the day. It was a college credit course where we lived in dorms, ate in the dining hall and could work in the studio any time we wanted. What could be better? OK, better if there were chickens there but as the island was a seagull breeding colony they wouldn’t have lasted. Seagulls are the heartless gangsters of the bird world. We had to wear earplugs to sleep at night and walking between buildings wore hats with big eyes painted on the back so they wouldn’t dive bomb and peck our heads! My work became more realistic and I used new techniques. And lost any fondness I may have had for gulls.

What art do you most identify with?

John Singer Sargent. Once someone said a piece I had done reminded them of his work and I almost swooned. Everybody has a dream and his work is mine.

What work do you most enjoying doing?

Veterinary work: I loved diagnosis. I thrived on the challenge of working through a case.

In art: large pieces, oil on canvas, animals (horses and chickens take top billing.) Pieces that I conceive from the idea to the composition, lighting, and subjects. I do commissions but I have to work with patrons to find a middle ground where I will enjoy creating it as much as they will enjoy having it. There is no doubt that my joy in creating comes through in the pieces I get most excited about.

One side gig I’ve done is to root around at flea markets to find vintage grain bags with cool graphics on them. The older ones are linen or at least linen-like fabric and great to paint on, almost like a linen canvas. I stretch and embellish them with my paintings before framing them. I try to preserve the original graphics and paint in the blank areas. I had one win a Judge’s Award at the International Exhibition on Animals in Art at Louisiana Veterinary School. It was on a bag of chicken feed named (I swear, this is the real name) Lay or Bust. There was a nice big square in the middle of the graphics that I used and painted my art muse, the Pissed Off Hen, sitting on a nest.

I am partial to the grain bags but the stretching and framing is pricey. I stretched one myself and after gouging multiple holes in all my fingers went back to the framer and told them I respected their work and their price was fair. And then there’s storage room – they’re big. You have to have the right crowd to show them for sales to happen. I did find one more Lay or Bust bag and I am saving it to find someone who would like me to do it on commission. I also have a rabbit feed bag that is amazing but the rabbit crowd is even smaller than the chicken peeps. 

Why art?

I am pretty sure that I am a right brain person who needed to break out. During my veterinary career it was all left-brain work – orderly and systematic. The right side is your creative side. I loved that I could be doing an orthopedic surgery in the afternoon following protocol, everything ‘by the book’ and in the evening go to art class and paint a purple zebra for release.

What memorable responses have you had to your work?

When people cry when they see a commissioned piece I did for them that is always good which sounds strange but it means I have touched a part of them that is close to their hearts. Tears are good. For original work: recently we were having a social time with friends and one of the women asked what I was working on. I started to describe it, then my husband said, “Just bring it downstairs.” I showed it to them and immediately saw one of the men’s eyes light up. He didn’t say anything for quite awhile and then said, ‘I’m buying it.” I told him the paint was still wet and he didn’t even know the price yet, but he didn’t care. He has a reputation in the area of being a very discriminating art collector so I was extremely honoured.

I’ve also had the honour of having two of my paintings featured as cover art for the Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association. A commission for the Veterinary Scholarship Trust of New England was my third cover and is now on loan to the veterinary college at Tufts. In addition, I’ve received Judges’ Awards at the International Exhibition on Animals in Art at the Louisiana State Veterinary College in 2003 and 2006.  

What is your dream project?

Being an artist in residence at a fancy equine facility. Or being the cosseted personal artist for a patron who breeds and shows exotic chickens. I’m not fussy.

What are your artistic goals?

To sell a lot of my art so I can make more art. And selling art I meet the most interesting people! Of course I want to improve my work and keep expanding into new niches. I did a series of paintings on shed moose antlers: “No moose died for my art”.

What is you earliest memory of chickens?

Honestly it was in veterinary school and you don’t want to know about that, believe me. But after I married my husband, who was raised in a home where they produced a lot of what they ate, we started having chickens, ducks and some geese. I was hooked.

Do you have chickens now?

Sadly, no. We travel a lot and are gone for an extended period during New England winter. We kept a small flock for years under those circumstances, even farmed out the girls while we were gone but it really became unfair to all concerned and about five years ago when we had six hens and five guinea fowl, a bobcat wiped out all but one hen and one guinea in a night. I was devastated! I walked around collecting their bodies and was wailing like a banshee. We live far from the neighbours but I thought they must have been thinking someone was killing me. It kind of felt like that. After that, we didn’t get any more. I do miss them.

How have they influenced your work?

My art muse is the Pissed Off Hen. I have a terrible black and white blown up image of one of my hens from decades ago on the wall by my workbench. Her neck feathers were gone, as sometimes happens. I used to lie on the ground outside their run and snap photos for painting subject material. She moseyed over to the fence, straightened her neck out all the way and stared down at me in the most superior way possible. I have painted that image in so many formats. And I honour her by giving her luscious feathering on her neck in every painting and she morphs into different breeds, different colors and even different degrees of irritability. I must say, quite immodestly, that I have the glare of a hen down pat.

To check out more of Robin’s artwork click on the link www.truelovearts.com Her paintings are signed with her maiden name Truelove. If I was born with such a great surname I’d be reticent to give it up too.

Robin has sent me a copy of her book. Once I’ve read it I’ll have greater insight into her life and practice. Stay tuned for part two of a peek into the life of a vet-turned-artist.

Many thanks to Robin Truelove Stronk for sharing her story, photos and artwork, used with permission.

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