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Picturing Pets

Eyewitness: Lesley Baumann, animal portraits


Lesley Baumann - MATTHEW THORSEN
  • Matthew Thorsen
  • Lesley Baumann

Lesley Baumann moved to Vermont less than a year ago, but she’s already got something many an in-state artist would envy: superior placement on Google. That is, if you know how to look. Type “animal portraits, vt” into the search engine, and the name Alexandra Jump Animal Portraits just, well, jumps out at you.

Though the corresponding URL redirects browsers to the address xandradesign.com, one glance at the home page dispels any confusion. Lesley Alexandra Jump Baumann uses her middle and maiden names for her fine-art portrait business and a diminution of Alexandra for her primary job as a graphic designer — she specializes in corporate brand development, particularly for clients in bioscience.

The section of Baumann’s website labeled simply “art” offers images in the following categories: greyhounds, dogs, cats, horses, birds and other animals. Baumann can “capture the essence of a pet’s personality,” the text boasts. “Lesley’s clients often comment on how the eyes in her portraits radiate character and charm.”

More persuasive than the words, though, is the adjacent drawing of a floppy-eared mutt caught in a moment of seeming contemplation. It is but one of Baumann’s many precise renderings in black-and-white pencil on sepia paper — and it’s not just an exact replica but, yes, a soulful one.

The greyhound portraits are even more exquisite; Baumann conveys the long-limbed animals’ regal mien and the gentleness that belies their sometimes abusive past. What’s striking about all these works is not just their skilled execution but their fidelity to the subjects’ essential animal nature. Rarely does Baumann place the creatures in a human-centric setting or anthropomorphize their traits; most of the backgrounds are stark. The only instance of “cuteness” — a portrait of a plaid-clad pup and beribboned poodle — was supplied by the two pets’ owner. Even in that mixed-media work, Baumann made the unconventional choice of painting the dogs on black paper.

Last May, Baumann, 32, and her husband, Chris, moved from Tucson, Az., to Milton, Vt., where they share a house with three cats and a dog. A lifelong equestrienne, Baumann soon found a nearby riding stable, and earlier this month she decided to buy her first Vermont horse. She has never let her allergies stand between her and a menagerie of pets.

Baumann says she always loved animals and began drawing them while she was in high school in Ohio — “to pay for my riding lessons,” she explains. When she lived out west, she made a small cottage industry out of animal art, selling not just originals and prints but decorative items such as tiles and note cards. She was a regular exhibitor at a “wine and animal-art fest” at Lake Tahoe, she says.

A visit to the Baumanns’ home on the suburban-rural edge of Milton instantly reveals the infatuation with furry friends. Animal portraits adorn every wall in the house — a cluster of dogs in the kitchen, a series of spirited horses in the living room, a large-scale cat painting over the bed.

Baumann says it was a “hard decision” in college whether to go into fine art or graphic design. She chose the latter route and graduated from the University of Cincinnati’s College of Design, Architecture, Art and Planning. But drawing is still her first love. “I take a sketchbook with me wherever I go,” she says. “I’ll even draw the salt and pepper shakers.”

She’s beginning to get requests for pet portraits in Vermont. Besides word of mouth, people learn about her through her animal-rescue efforts and donations of drawings for fundraisers, Baumann says. This year, she plans to boost the marketing and “start doing craft fairs again.” While her graphite drawings may prove most distinctive in that marketplace, Baumann also works in acrylic and watercolor — media better suited to colorful subjects. Her most popular portraits are of dogs, she says. She guesses cats and horses vie for runner-up.

Why would someone shell out 300 or more bucks for a professional drawing when they can capture Fido with a photo? “Gifts are huge,” Baumann replies. “The second biggest reason is, people have just lost a pet and they want a special remembrance.”

When the pet is still living, Baumann prefers to meet it, if possible, to get a sense of its personality; she then takes pictures to bring home. The resulting image may not be the “prettiest,” she says, but it is the most true. “One time I did a portrait of a dog for a guy in Tucson; it was a gift for his girlfriend,” Baumann recalls. “It was really hot, and the dog’s tongue was hanging out. So that’s what I drew — it was just her.”

Sometimes, Baumann says, clients who order artwork don’t really know what they want. Her preference? Graphite drawings on colored paper. That’s the medium she usually employs with her own pets. “I’m working on one of the cats for this year’s Christmas card,” Baumann confides. Chances are, her new horse will be immortalized on paper very soon.