Artists spread joy and highlight homeless pets

Painting of two happy parakeets (one green and one blue) with their eyes closed
The team of artists at Art While Apart give pets of all shapes and sizes the model treatment with colorful, cute, and eye-catching illustrations.
By Sarah Thornton

Pets bring a whole lot of happiness to a whole lot of lives — from our own feathered or furred friends and family members to adorable animals on the internet. They cheer us up when we’re feeling down and are masters of making us smile with just the twitch of their whiskers or the tiniest stretch of their paw. And that kind of joy is what got Isabel Hertz-Miñoso thinking about an artistic new endeavor, which includes some familiar animal faces from Best Friends.

Art While Apart is the result of a group of digital artists working together to create something spectacular. What started as a project to create pet portraits for people who needed a bit of light in their lives has continued to expand. And now they’ve begun working with animal rescue organizations across the country, including Best Friends, to promote homeless pets with gorgeous and unique digital paintings.

[Pet portraits draw laughs, raise dollars for pets]

The artists have created one-of-a-kind art pieces featuring adoptable dogs, cats, pigs, birds, bunnies, and horses.

Scrolling through the @art.while.apart Instagram account is a real treat for the eyes. The artists — who volunteer their time and skills — are clearly having fun with the pets they’re painting, and they do an amazing job capturing their personalities.

Here is more from Isabel about her passion project to highlight adoptable animals.

What was the spark that got Art While Apart started?

Just as the pandemic was beginning to take full swing, I was driving with my parents back to college (still in the hopes of picking classes back up once the pandemic “blew over”). I was still in my undergraduate years at the time, inching towards the end of my time as a junior. Frankly, it was also during a period when I felt quite bored. Classes weren’t blasting ahead like they had in person, many people had left campus to stay with their parents, my part-time jobs stuttered to a temporary stop, and I found myself with a lot of free time. But an idea bloomed as my mother began sharing a story about someone she knew.

“She’s depressed. Someone in her family just passed from COVID,” she recounted. My father sighed, sympathizing for his wife’s friend. It was a common occurrence back then to mention how many people had been swept away by the pandemic. Sadly, this story was one of many.

As my mother began to express her grief over the current times, my attention shifted internally. Here’s how the internal monologue went:

“Seems like a lot of people are going through a hard time.”

A wave of helplessness washed over me.

“Not much I can do about it. I’m not a doctor. And me being around people will likely only exacerbate the situation since, well, close contact.”

An idea began to form.

“Well, what can I do? I can’t save lives, but maybe I can distract someone, if not for a brief moment. I like art. Digital art. I’ve been meaning to pick that back up lately. I’ve got the time now, at least. Maybe I could make digital art for people. No close contact required. Ooooh, maybe other people would be interested in making digital art, too. It’s a de-stressor, so perhaps it would bring some peace to both artists and art recipients alike. Ohohohooo. Sleep on it, though; let’s not jump into any rash decisions. Wait, hold up; we could make art of people’s pets. People love their pets. Pets bring much joy and are great distractions in themselves!”

I remained quiet as my parents continued to chat in the front seats. But, later that night, I began to ask friends and online forums whether such an idea would be nice. Sadly, a lot of the feedback I received was negative. “You’re exploiting artists for free art,” one person wrote. It was disheartening to read all the unsupportive messages, but I didn't let it deter me. All I was looking to do was spread some kindness during a very devastating time.

Just as I’d advised myself, I slept on it. And the next morning, feeling refreshed and motivated, I began to craft the website. Besides, what was the worst that could happen? There was no harm in trying.

The project booted up after a couple days of chipping away at the website — on May 20, 2020, and artists began applying as requests for pet portraits filtered in. It slowly began to grow.

For a long stretch of time, we focused solely on creating pet portraits for people. But, in mid-2021, the administration team began brainstorming opening up to rescue groups. The pandemic wouldn’t last forever, and we realized our efforts could be directed to other causes, as well. So we started reaching out to rescue organizations. Through it, we (worked) with Horse Plus Humane Society, Toronto Humane Society, Niagara Dog Rescue, and, naturally, Best Friends Animal Society. In recent months, we’ve added Lucky Dog Animal Rescue.

Our goal on that front was to increase exposure for animals who were looking for homes. We figured that by using our Instagram account and artistic abilities, we could help with outreach. In the future, we’re also thinking of creating art of animals in sanctuaries to educate the public on endangered species.

So far, we’ve created over 3,200 pet portraits and about 670 portraits (of pets from rescue organizations). And we currently have 143 artists — and counting!

When you receive a request, how are artists decided? Is there a turn order, or do they pick whom they're drawn to?

Artists can pick whom they’d like to paint. It’s not an “assignment,” per se.

When it comes to pets from rescue groups, we pin 15 to 20 in our rescue-claiming channel. (This is where we post claimable homeless pets to draw and where our artists state whom they’d like to paint.)

[8 artists illustrate one special cat]

If an artist finds that a particular animal calls to them, they simply send “claim [pet name] the [pet species/breed]” into the channel, and the information is subsequently sent to them via direct message.

How do you decide which adoptable animals to illustrate?

Some organizations will ask us to paint particular homeless animals, so we add those to the pool any time we get requests. If our artists ask for us to pull a specific rescued pet into the claimable pool (happens very seldom, if ever, but we do give the option to our artists), we also take their requests into account.

Our staff team tries to bring in any animals who have not been painted before. We try our best to make our claimable pool as diverse as possible to help animals of all walks of life and of all kinds. Those newer to the rescue group and long-standing residents alike are painted — as well as rats, birds, dogs, cats, horses, and what-have-you. Both older and younger ages are represented, too (oftentimes, however, the younger animals are adopted before we finish their portraits).

Basically, we like to have a little bit of everything. It makes it more exciting for our artists, it represents all kinds of animals, and it showcases the variety the rescue organizations have.

All adoptable animals we’ve painted are eventually highlighted on our Instagram. The only time we don’t post portraits is if they’ve already been adopted — at that point, the exposure isn’t required.