Home Front: It's All in the Eyes 

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Rudy had an endearing tilt of the head. Gidgi had the ramrod posture of a West Point cadet. Tucker had those sad sheepdog eyes. And the cats -- well, the cats just stared.

Every dog (and cat) is unique. And no one knows that better than pet sculptor Kathryn Nicholas.

The Richmond native began sculpting dogs when she was in high school and her English setter "accidentally had puppies." The father must have had a deep gene pool, because the pups came out in a rainbow of colors, shapes and sizes. There was no way to ever duplicate them, she realized -- and so she tried her hand at sculpting them in clay.

It was just a hobby for Nicholas until four years ago, when the Gayton Crossing Starbucks invited her to display some of her work in their front window.

A thousand business cards left in pockets. "The phone didn't stop ringing," Nicholas says. Soon she found herself working on pet sculptures full time. She has exhibited them at various shops and galleries, most recently the Judy Newcomb Gallery.

All she needs is a favorite photograph. Nicholas looks at it several times over the course of a few days, "just literally getting a sense of the animal."

Working in the kitchen of her Bon Air carriage house, she begins sculpting, starting with a lump of polymer clay. "I just really concentrate and try to bring out the face and the personality," she says.

She would never take a shortcut by using a mold, she says, because every individual animal has a different body shape. She spends a week or two on each 8- to 9-inch sculpture, pausing sometimes to take photos of the piece and critique it.

When it's done, Nicholas says, she tells her clients it's OK to let her know if something's off. "Go ahead and tell me if the muzzle isn't right, or there's too much excitement in the eyes," she says. They never do, she says, but instead exclaim how much it looks like Fluffy.

If the pet has died, "I usually get a phone call from somebody crying," she says.

That's the tough part — "how quickly they leave us," says Nicholas, herself a dog lover. "But over the years I have learned to realize and focus on the tremendous, permanent joy each one creates." HS



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