How Port St. Lucie Artist Skip Hartzell Became Dog’s Best Friend

by Wendy Dwyer Mar 2017 Also on Digital Edition

For Skip Hartzell, known locally as “the dog artist,” inspiration comes in the form of a morning walk—accompanied by a furry friend.

It started with a bucket of puppies underneath the Christmas tree and a smile on the face of a toddler who got to hold them. The toddler was Skip Hartzell, now a renowned painter and sculptor whose niche is man’s best friend. From the litter on that Christmas morning, Hartzell took home a puppy he named Pudgy. But when the family moved, Hartzell’s mother gave Pudgy away and told Hartzell that Pudgy had gone missing. It took years before Hartzell learned the truth. Not knowing where Pudgy went seems to have morphed into a lifetime passion for creating dogs through art, possibly in a lifelong search for Pudgy.

After graduating from college, Hartzell taught high school for a couple of years and then moved to Chicago to pursue a full-time career in art. He says those years were filled with whimsical street scenes on giant canvases, and though dogs and birds often appeared in his artwork, they were not center stage. In 1975, Hartzell’s studio burned to the ground and he lost everything—a traumatic experience that would turn his attention away from art for some time. He continued to sculpt and paint, but art became a hobby as he turned his attention to creating a successful second act in advertising and marketing. It wasn’t until 35 years later, when he sold his business and retired to Florida, that Hartzell decided it was time to pick up his tools and refocus on art.

When he got into the studio each morning, which happened to be just after walking his dogs, he found that “dog shapes just started showing up,” he says. “Before I knew it, I had a whole bunch of dog sculptures—like over 100. That led to paintings and other sculptures, and I just get out of my own way and let the dogs control the art.”

Whether he’s painting or sculpting, Hartzell’s dogs have a wonderful quality of friendliness about them, and it’s hard to keep yourself from reaching out to touch. And that’s OK with Hartzell. He’s never been one to place a rope around his artwork.

“The texture is so important because the tactile experience of sculpture is so primal for me,” he says. “You grab with your hands and just start to mush things together and get your fingers on the materials, and there is just such a richness to the feel.” He says whenever he’s doing a show, he is quick to hand his sculptures to the patrons so they can enjoy the feeling, too. And whether it’s paint on canvas or sculpture, the texture is one of the most captivating and inviting parts of experiencing his artwork. Hartzell may not set out to mimic the look of someone’s beloved pet, but he says his sculptures and paintings often evoke a fond memory of a furry family member.

Hartzell and his wife, Jeanette, are also big supporters of Big Dog Ranch Rescue in Loxahatchee. As the largest no-kill shelter in the southeastern United States, Hartzell has not only been a volunteer but has found some of his best friends at the rescue facility. Hartzell is currently working on a design that will be painted on the walls at a new wing in the organization’s shelter.

Though he is talented and infinitely qualified to sculpt and paint any number of things, Hartzell continues to be inspired by the dogs who accompany him on his morning walks, share his studio space and offer love and loyalty. In effect, Hartzell lets them take the leash. “I love where they lead me,” he says of how the four-legged friends have helped him become known as “the dog artist.”

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