• ← Thesis 2013
  • Companion is a visual exploration into the ties that bind humans with their canine counterparts. This project explores the emotionally and pragmatically interwoven nature of our lives with dogs.

    Visual Research

    How do you represent and illuminate a relationship between an animal and a person? This collection of visual research guided and inspired the investigation that determined the theme of the entire project. Included are sets of exploratory paper weavings, photographic fur studies, item and identifier indexing and visual studies.

    Shared Stories

    This series of infographics charts the complex relationship between each person and their dog by comparing similarities, examining life patterns, and dissecting routines. Each resulting visual story acts as a map for interpreting unique relationships.

    Pair Portraits

    Gathering information from fellow dog owners was an important way to both collect data and showcase the unique relationships between human and canine. Each form was simple and required very little involvement to create a portrait. The contributers could share as much, or as little as they wanted. All of these were displayed on rotation at the exhibition as they were created.

    Exhibition

    Companion was exhibited in the Decker Gallery at the Maryland Institute College of Art, March 29 - April 17, 2013.

    Writing

    He paced around the apartment, looking for me. I watched on the video screen as he moved from window to window, panting. He climbed on the recliner and perched himself on the back cushion so he could get a better look at what was going on outside the window. When he realized that I wasn’t there, either, he circled the apartment. Searching.

    +

    This wasn’t the first time that I had taken video of what my dog, Theo, was doing while I wasn’t home. When I was twenty-four years old, I had plucked him from a rescue in New Hampshire and called him my own. The woman who saved him told me, “He’s an escape artist. Watch out.” I laughed - because, well, what else was there to do? But she was both right, and wrong - he wasn’t actually an escape artist. He was searching. After noticing his extreme anxiousness, I decided to film him for the first time to see his reaction when I left. Maybe there was some clue to how I could better help him? I was heartbroken to see him pawing to break free from his crate to find me, and hear his cries that started as soon as I left the building.

    Years later, he no longer needed the crate. I had worked enough with him and calmed his nervousness to the point that he could roam free while I was at work. But still, he was searching for me. Like he did everyday. Every single time I left. Every single time I left for over three years.

    ---

    Prior to adopting Theo, I was living above an empty commercial space in the Fox Point neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island. Roughly a year and a half beforehand, I left the safety and security of the southeast that I had called home and moved north to pursue a new life. That new life included a promising freelance gig at a homey, dog-friendly design studio and then led into a depressing bout of unemployment as spring turned into summer.

    I spent the summertime desperately applying for jobs and adjusting to the discomfort of living in a third floor apartment without air conditioning. Eventually I moved my iMac into the bedroom - which had the only temperamental window A/C in the apartment. I worked on the floor, sending in applications and portfolio after portfolio to jobs in and around southern New England. I wasn’t the only one dying for work - day after day, I listen to reports of crushingly high unemployment in my area, one of the worst for jobs in the country. New England had seen the demise of it’s mill and textile industry long ago, but it was hit hard with the economic downturn of 2008. The empty mill buildings that were once so prominent in the city served as an ugly reminder of the past. I spent the money My boyfriend and I had saved on rent and I lamented the loss of my sense of independence with each passing day as we struggled to stay afloat.

    Eventually, I went to work part-time at a print shop in one of those mill buildings. It was September, and the heat was giving way to cool New England fall. Three days a week, I made plates for the presses, folded brochures, glued pads of paper and tabbed menus for local restaurants. In the meantime, the building our apartment was in was sold to a young Moroccan student who was determined to turn our empty first floor commercial space into hookah lounge and tea shop. We lamented the loss of our quiet building. I spent the afternoons at the dog park with my best friend, who had two dogs. I became a regular at the park, and I knew each dog by name and owner, although as it’s true with most dog park friendships, I rarely new the owners actual name. I knew them as “Sam’s dad” or “Amber’s mom.”

    Each visit I was approached by someone new.

    “Which one is yours?” They would ask.

    “Oh, none of them. I just like dogs so I come pretty often.”

    After seeing their confused faces, I would add, “but I’m going to get one soon. I come here with my friend all of the time.”

    ---

    It was October, and it was crisp outside. When things were slow at work, I perused the local animal shelter and animal adoption websites. It was habitual. My first job at the homey design studio had several dogs that came to work with my coworkers, and I fell in love with the idea of having a dog with me all of the time. So I looked, saving links for each and every cute puppy that I could find. It was something I had been doing for almost a year, but the timing was never right. My boyfriend was skeptical.

    “We can’t afford a dog.”

    “That one’s just okay.”

    “I just don’t think it’s the right time.”

    But I continued searching, endlessly.

    And finally, one was right. His name was Winston, and he was in New Hampshire, just north of Boston. He was red like a fox, with huge ears and dark eyes that stared right through the photograph and into my soul. There was something almost human about the way he was looking at the camera. He was perfect.

    ---

    On a Friday, we drove to New Hampshire to pick up Winston - who we would eventually rename Theo. We arrived late, and it was dark as we navigated a winding road in chilly New Hampshire towards the foster home he was staying at.

    Upon arriving, the woman who ran the rescue told us his story and plopped a sleeping, red dog in my arms. She told us that he was originally found in Ozark Acres in Arkansas, and was taken to a high kill shelter. A woman affiliated with the rescue sponsored him and he was sent on a transport truck up to New Hampshire to be adopted. I couldn’t believe my luck! Somehow we had unknowingly adopted a southern dog. It was love at first sight. He was perfect.

    For the next two years, Theo was the center of my life. We eventually moved out of the apartment with the hookah lounge on the first floor and into a beautiful, third floor apartment with rich hardwood floors and a dozen windows. Everywhere we went, Theo went. Weekends became opportunities to have new adventures with him. We became regulars at the dog park. People there knew me as “Theo’s mom” and we would gossip about how the other dogs at the park had been behaving.

    At the end of 2010 my boyfriend proposed. I was simultaneously sending in applications for graduate school. Only one of the schools was in Providence. We had made a life there, but it was time to try something new. I wasn’t scared.

    ---

    In August of 2011 I moved to Baltimore for graduate school. My fiance and Theo stayed in Providence instead of moving right away. I had landed an assistantship working and living on-campus, and ached for my two best friends. Six months later, they both finally made the move to Baltimore.

    My job on-campus meant that Theo suddenly had hundreds of people who were interested in meeting him. The students flocked to pet him, telling me stories of how they missed their dog and how seeing Theo made them feel better about being away from home. He was comforting for me, too. After late nights in the studio, Theo would quietly walk to the door of the apartment to greet me, no matter how late. In return, I took him to my studio, on hikes, to the park, and to friend’s houses to indulge in life as a graduate student. Theo was an extension of myself, and it just made sense.

    School became increasingly stressful, but Theo continued to be a true companion. I had been convinced for a long time that he had a stronger connection with my fiance - but that didn’t seem to be the case when we moved to Baltimore. Theo had always been loyal, but things were changing. I just didn’t have any idea how much.

    ---

    In the weekend prior to what would become one of the worst days of my life, I obliviously enjoyed fall break with my friends and my fiance. A few short days later he came home moments after I had put dinner on the stove. My fiance stared at me with a strange look on his face and asked if we could speak.

    “We need to break up.”

    After over five years of our live being completely intertwined, I was numb. I couldn’t even formulate words. Dinner burned on the stove.

    We were a family - a small family - but they were the most important things to me. They were what was keeping me focused, they were why I came to graduate school. I wanted to make a good life for us. I didn’t understand how this could have all come undone. I asked him the question that every woman hopes will not be true. He paused for a moment and looked at me. My heart sank to my feet. His words were no consolation to the truth. His face said it all.

    He told me to keep Theo. He told me that I needed him more than he did. For months, the only reason I was motivated to get up in the morning was because of Theo. On many occasions, I would wake up after a particularly bad dream to Theo snuggled up to my side, or to his face pointed at mine, resting his head on my pillow. At night, I held onto him as I tried to navigate stormy waters. He never left my side. He never judged me. He needed me, and I needed him. His constant presence was comforting in the absence of my former partner.

    It was Thanksgiving, and Theo and I drove together to Kentucky to see my family. It was the first Thanksgiving that I had spent with my family in five years. Hours of West Virginia interstate flew by as I wiped tears away from my eyes. Theo stared at me, curled up on the passenger seat. I knew what he was thinking.

    “Mom, get it together!”

    ---

    Months after things fell apart, life started to come back together. Theo went through a phase of acting out when we first started over, but it took time for me to realize it was because when I finally started leaving my apartment again, he was lost. His world revolved around what I was doing. Mine revolved around trying to finish school and keeping myself afloat. He had - with a selflessness that I can only describe as being human - devoted his entire existence to being close to me. He was more in tune with how I was doing than even I was.

    As more time passed, the feeling of loss and heartache gave way to new beginnings. When I looked back after losing what I thought was going to be my future, I realized that I had to count each thing that I gained in order to keep myself sane. His attentiveness to me was stronger than ever before, and in some way, all of what had happened helped create a natural rhythm of our new life.

    ---

    At the end of the last video I shot of him alone in my apartment, he stepped down from the recliner and walked over to the couch. My camera was sitting on the kitchen table, pointed at the couch. Seconds before the memory card was full, he settled next to the armrest and turned, looking directly into the camera. The image of his eyes staring into the lens before the image cut out gave me chills, but I wasn’t quite sure why. He had been searching for me for years, each and every time that I left wherever we called home, because he was nervous to be alone. But now, I was all he cared about. I was all he needed. It was never more apparent to me than it was at that moment that the time I had a responsibility to my dog for giving me the courage I needed to start over again. In some ways, we are both searching. He searches for me, and I search for our next adventure.

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    About

    Sarah Robertson is a graphic designer, photographer and artist originally from Kentucky. She extends her sincere thanks to MICA and her GDMFA classmates for their participation in this project.