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wags - Artist Nathan Janes and his Urban Underdog, Mutz

  By: Angelle Bergeron

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When dogs are down and out – homeless, hungry, sick, dropping another litter of unwanted puppies and wondering where their next meal is going to come from, there is always one champion ready to throw them a bone. Mutz: The Urban Underdog.

A faithful foe of canine neglect and abuse, this doggie super hero was first spotted about two years ago, sporting a red cape and blue mask, on the shores of Lake Erie in Port Clinton, Ohio. After surviving terrible abuse and neglect during her puppy years, Mutz has vowed to avenge abusers and educate humans about the proper treatment of animals. Armed with her trusty holstered bone, Mutz is likely to pounce into any situation and fetch her fellow canines from the jaws of cruelty.

Evil-doers beware! Mutz: The Urban Underdog is barking mad when it comes to cruelty to canines. As quick as a wag, she is likely to appear out of nowhere, howling her favorite message: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Artist Nathan Janes first captured the colorful, spirited image of Mutz on canvas two years ago. Like all super heroes, the vivid, in-your-face, pop art depiction seemed to spring out of nowhere. However, Mutz’ genesis was the result of a long, tortured history and journey of self-awareness. Her creator’s path represents a struggle, epiphany and turning point.

A native of Port Clinton and a graduate of the Columbus College of Art & Design, Janes was inspired by his elder brother, who trained as a comic book artist. At CCAD, Janes majored in illustration with the intent of working as an editorial artist, but was influenced by his roommate to enter the world of wildlife art. “I always had a feeling inside that I wanted to do something outside of the business world and venture into where I could explore my artistic balance and get into galleries,” Janes said. For two years he had a relatively successful career creating photo-realistic wildlife paintings in oil.

Then one day, like Clark Kent ducking into a phone booth to exchange his horn-rimmed glasses and conservative suit for a cape of vivid blue and red, Janes holed up in his studio and traded his career for an uncertain but invigorating venture into the raucous and bold world of pop art.

His inspiration? Naturally, it was a dog.

“I adopted my first dog, Button, from the Ottawa County Humane Society here in Port Clinton,” Janes said. About a month or so after Button came into his life, the artist became acutely aware of how unnatural it felt to paint the way he had been. “I wanted to try something totally different,” he said. “I painted my first painting of Button in the style I call pop ARF.”

Janes knew he would have to re-define himself and his work, create a whole new category for his whimsical, yet respectful works that would likely be lumped into the category of pop art. That’s how pop ARF was born. “My family and my girlfriend were worried because I had worked so hard on my wildlife art, but it didn’t feel natural, like what I was meant to do,” Janes said. “When I saw what I did with Button, I decided to do a whole different thing and do a style that was more natural and comfortable for me.”

Button’s depiction, the first Janes foray into pop ARF, is a colorful caricature that reveals her individual personality, as well as the love and gratitude that are evident in the eyes of every rescue dog. “Button would like to be carried around the block instead of walk,” Janes said of the black terrier mix, who sports a white blaze on her chest, with a black button. “She likes to lay right by me with her head on the pillow. She likes to be loved and comforted. (Hence, the princess, royalty look in the painting.) That is how she looks at you, with that ‘pick me up’ look, kind of like, ‘I’m precious and give me some love.’”

Janes’ family was a little skeptical at first, worried about the bold colors and quirky subjects that were such a departure from the more realistic work he had left behind. But the artist felt compelled to create something different that would elicit strong feelings from dog lovers anywhere. With his work, Janes hopes to create a separate genre of K-9 fine art, something that helps to educate the public about neglect and abuse and still honor his subjects.

“It was a transformation that felt natural, and it just took off,” Janes said. Within the past few months, Janes’ pop ARF has been featured in a variety of national and international publications. In 2005, Janes was named “Emerging Artist and Trendsetter” by Art Business News, the largest trade publication in the U.S.

“With my wildlife art, I didn’t really receive the attention that I’ve gotten with my pop ARF paintings,” he said. “I think people are drawn to this because of the connection they feel with dogs and the originality of my style. People say it’s so different.”

Mutz: The Urban Underdog, looks amazingly like Zipper, Janes’ second rescue dog, who is sort of a mix between a beagle and a yellow Labrador retriever. Like Mutz, Zipper came from a family who abused and neglected her. “When I wanted to adopt her, there was a court case going on, so I couldn’t adopt her until the case ended,” Janes said. “I fostered her four months before they called and said I could adopt her.”

Happy to have a second chance at a much better life, Zipper is a dog’s dog, bursting with enthusiasm and always up for a game of fetch. She loves to chew on bones and chase stuff, but her favorite pastime is eating poop treats, Janes said. “I tell everyone that someday I’ll do a painting about it.”

Mutz is sort of Zipper’s alter-ego, Janes said. “Mutz has a disguise and a bone in a holster,” he said. “Zipper really only cares about fetching, running and eating pooh pooh.”

Although Zipper and Button have themselves survived neglect and abuse, and inspired the artist who rescued them, the job of rescuing all of their fellow canines is just too big for two sets of paws to handle. “I had to make up a super hero because it is a job too big even for Zipper,” Janes said.

On April 29, a three-dimensional, larger-than-life Mutz: The Urban Underdog appeared in a Pet Parade and Street Party in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, as part of the annual Art Unleashed fundraiser for the Forsyth Humane Society. Janes was invited to create a design for one of the 46 cast fiberglass dog and cat forms that will be displayed throughout downtown Winston-Salem until August 26, when the humane society hosts its adoption auction.

“I never painted a three-dimensional form before, and it was a challenge,” Janes said of the three-foot. tall by four-foot. long form. “I have been accustomed to painting on canvas and flat surfaces, but I was really pleased the way it turned out.”

This marks the third year that the Forsyth Humane Society is conducting its Art Unleashed event, said Stephanie Belcher, a volunteer who coordinated the artists. “We were looking for an event that would be open to everyone, would tie the community together as well as help the humane society,” Belcher said. About 150 designs were submitted and the humane society solicited sponsors to support the designs of their choice. Mutz: The Urban Underdog received a pick-of-the-litter, $3,000 sponsor, which is the highest level. “We had many designs that weren’t picked,” Belcher said.

The $3,000 sponsorship covers the form and materials. Whatever prices the works fetch in the auction go to the society, not the artists. Janes is excited that Art Unleashed gives Mutz an opportunity to visit another city and do good works there. “I am most passionate about educating the populace about cruelty to animals and spreading the word about proper treatment of animals, neglect and abuse,” he said. “Hopefully, what I am painting will make a difference in the world.”

The greatest thing about pop ARF is being able to give something back to the animals. For example, his painting “Rex,” which depicts a biker-looking Brussels Gruffan, who has lost the use of his back legs, was designed to attract attention to the issue of dogs with disabilities. “I wanted that painting to show the strength and resilience in dogs,” he said.

The artist plans to have Mutz make an appearance every few months and has been considering creating a super hero side kick that is a feline, or perhaps someone like Button. “Based on her personality, she would be out to help, but really more worried about getting dirt on her costume,” he said. “I was going to make a cat that was her main side kick, but I’m more of a dog person. I feel like a dog sometimes when I look at cats. I can’t figure them out. They seem to kind of ignore you.”

And what do the sources of inspiration, Button and Zipper, make of all of this newfound fame? “I’m not really too sure,” Janes said. “They don’t really seem too interested in my art when I show them. They are more interested in looking out the windows in my studio than looking at my art. I think they just like to wait for the paper girl to show up. It’s the most exciting part of the day, other than going on walks, barking at the paper girl.”

You can view and order Pop ARF originals or limited edition prints on canvas by visiting
View all 46 dogs and cats that are currently on display in Winston-Salem by visiting

Photographs by Cami Johnson,