Eight years ago, Erika Bleiberg of Glen Ridge, a public relations professional and artist, launched a project to honor journalists by painting portraits of their beloved pets. These works are colorful, evocative and expressive.
“What started with a 2015 portrait of Montclair resident and journalist Dale Russakoff’s trusty dog Junior and progressed to a 2019 painting of NPR National Correspondent Sarah McCammon’s dog Martin became an amazing journey of portraying hundreds of journalists’ pets,” she has said, in her artist statement.
“I’ve done pet portraits for journalists across the country, including New York Times’ Kim Barker, Susanne Craig and Shawna Richer, The Guardian’s Margaret Sullivan, AP’s Eric Tucker, Soledad O’Brien, NPR’s Giles Snyder, Washington Post’s Tik Tok guy Dave Jorgensen and VoteBeat’s Jessica Huseman, to name just a few.”
Bleiberg also has painted 50 or so pet portraits for New Jersey’s press corps, many of whom she has worked with for years.
From Sept. 9 to Oct. 8, you will be able to view some of them in an exhibition titled “#journalismmatters” at Francesca Castagnoli’s The Tiny Gallery at 8 Stanford Place in Montclair. There will be an opening reception, Sept. 10 from 5 to 7 p.m. “All are welcome, nibbles and sips are provided by Grape Collective in Upper Montclair,” Bleiberg said.
My dog, as well as the dog of NJArts.net editor Jay Lustig, will be represented in the exhibition. Portraits of pets owned by the following fellow Montclair journalists also will be shown: Liz George, John Mooney, Dale Russakoff/Matt Purdy, Kate Zernike, Jonathan Alter, Andrew Rice/Jen Saba, Julia Martin, Cindy Handler, Jaime Bedrin/Scott Dodd and Joe Pompeo.
Bleiberg, who began painting in kindergarten, developed an admiration for the media by observing her dad, a filmmaker for the Public Broadcasting Service.
“My reverence for the work journalists do to speak truth to power in the name of democracy was cemented when I watched my father and his colleagues report on the Watergate hearings,” she said. “That was a coming of age for me personally, politically and professionally.
“Many years later, I painted a portrait of my latest rescue dog Cozy and it seemed to make everyone happy. I kept painting pets and it became a source of joy for me and the people I painted for. I gave them as gifts to friends and strangers alike.”
Just like Bleiberg’s father, her son Jake works as a journalist, for the Associated Press. So when the media is attacked, it feels personal.
“In 2015, during the U.S. presidential campaign, something shifted for me and the nation,” she said. “We observed journalists being harassed, threatened and discredited. The media was presented as the enemy of the people by national leaders. I was horrified.”
She noticed in her Twitter feed that as divisiveness increased in our country, journalists she followed frequently posted photos of their pets. So she started focusing on painting animals belonging to journalists. She wanted to bring comfort to “democracy’s Fourth Estate.”
“This is a passion project and is designed to spread happiness,” she said, adding “it’s just about joy.”
She loves painting landscapes, and is inspired by Impressionists, particularly “Vincent Van Gogh’s magical ways of seeing the world. Somehow with animals … when I look at them, I see beauty. I will continue to paint — there’s no end date. It’s probably one of the most gratifying things I have done. As long as there are journalists who want me to paint their pets, I will continue. And if there are more journalists in Montclair who haven’t participated but would like a painting, I will make them one.”
She doesn’t have any future exhibitions scheduled, but said “I hope this is the first of more to come.”
The Tiny Art Gallery is modeled after the Little Free Libraries and food pantries that have popped up all around the area.
“When I learned about Francesca Castagnoli’s Tiny Art Gallery — a local public art initiative in Montclair — I reached out to connect with her about my own free art project,” Bleiberg said. “It seemed we were kindred spirits and destined to collaborate.
“The 3-feet-by-2-feet box houses miniature original art for people to view and enjoy. Coming out of the pandemic, she wanted to create something beautiful. Facebook and Instagram reels of her gallery have racked up thousands of views since she installed it in February 2023.
“I proposed to create an exhibit featuring tiny (2.5 by 3.5 inches) portraits of animal muses (there’s a goat in the collection!) for journalists who live in Montclair.”
Bleiberg never accepts payment from journalists for the portraits. So after the exhibit, she will give the tiny paintings to the respective journalists. “The project is a random act of kindness — just an expression of love in this complicated world,” she said.
“I’ve watched folks walking their dogs on the phone, and then suddenly they stop and stare into the gallery,” Castagnoli said, “and I know they are having that rare feeling of being taken in by something small and unexpected and getting this wondrous expansive moment.”
I walked by the gallery yesterday. Staring into its small space, I thought of my childhood dollhouse. I felt that same sense of enchantment that tiny, creative spaces evoke.
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