Meet the Artist Behind White Dog Café’s Iconic Canine Paintings
Jay McClellan’s portraits have been commissioned by the likes of former Phillies’ player Chase Utley and Urban Outfitters.
Jay McClellan at work in his East Falls studio. Photos by Tessa Marie Images.
Dr. Larry Kaiser was having dinner at the White Dog Café in Haverford and once again admiring the paintings displayed around the restaurant. They’re hard to miss—averaging 30 by 40 inches, with their canine subjects set against vibrantly patterned backgrounds. “We should get paintings of our dogs,” the president and CEO of Temple University Health System told his wife, Lindy Snider.
Turns out Snider was way ahead of him. She had already commissioned Jay McClellan to create portraits of their four dogs as a surprise gift for Kaiser’s birthday. The Lindi Skin founder says the East Falls-based artist perfectly captured the personalities of her canine kids, Remy, Riley, Taj and Maggie. He got on well with the dogs as soon as he met them, with the exception of Maggie, who’d recently died. Snyder wanted Maggie represented, so she supplied McClellan with photos of the much-loved pet. “Jay and I talked a lot about Maggie,” says Snider. “She was a human-like dog, so brilliant that I could communicate to her with hand signals.”
McClellan with Lucky and Ava Belle.
Snider also consulted with McClellan on the colors and patterns that compose the paintings’ backgrounds. “We have an older, Main Line home with dark wood,” she says. “To have these colorful and happy paintings is great, and it’s very ‘us.’”
The four portraits were hanging in the couple’s Bryn Mawr home when Kaiser returned from a business trip. He loved them so much that he made them the wallpaper on his phone.
McClellan’s portraits also hang in the homes of animal lovers Chase and Jen Utley and FOX News’ Martha MacCallum. Nine others were recently purchased for Urban Outfitters’ hip headquarters at the Navy Yard, and McClellan has a growing waiting list of clients.
So how did a guy from Arkansas become one of the most in demand artists in the Philadelphia area? It started with Tip and Honey. In 2001, McClellan’s mother was diagnosed with late-stage pancreatic cancer. She passed away just a month later. Shaken and grief-stricken, McClellan adopted a carpe diem approach to his life, deciding to follow his dream.
Fine art had been his passion since high school, but McClellan’s parents wanted him to be practical, funneling his talent into production work. In 2004, he left a well-paying job at his father’s graphic design company to attend art school. The work he’d done in his free time got him accepted to Memphis College of Art’s BFA program.
At the time, chairs were McClellan’s chief subjects. An MCA professor told him that his work, while technically proficient, wasn’t evoking emotion. The chairs were of different styles, but always empty. The professor guessed, correctly, that McClellan was subconsciously representing the loss of his mother. He switched gears, rechanneling his energy into more positive subjects—including Tip and Honey, litter siblings he’d recently adopted. In place of loss, McClellan depicted love.
Once he started painting his two hounds, his creative mojo fell into place. The graphic, colorful backgrounds that became McClellan’s signature originated with a book of old-fashioned, hand-screened wallpaper samples a fellow student found in her parents’ barn.
McClellan arrived in Philadelphia in 2006 to pursue his MFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. While his unorthodox work generated some harsh criticism from professors and peers, it also landed him a gallery show and a big sale. Fatefully, the folks running the Old City gallery were locked out of the building for nonpayment of rent.
Determined to get his paintings, McClellan contacted the landlord of the building, which had a factory-style door on its second floor. “I was hauling my paintings out that door and dropping them onto the street,” McClellan said. “A lady walked by, looked at the painting at her feet, and decided to buy it. So when the critics got down on me, I was like, ‘Well, I’m selling work.’”
A similar chain of events happened in 2013. McClellan got a call from the owner of a Stone Harbor, N.J., gallery exhibiting his work. A young woman loved one of McClellan’s dog portraits and wanted to buy it. The woman was Sydney Grims; her father is Marty Grims, owner of the White Dog Cafés. “It was a huge painting of a dog with two cans of Alpo,” Sydney remembers. “The colors were vibrant and evoked really happy emotions.” The dog in the painting was Tip; he now hangs in the University City White Dog.
The Grimses love McClellan’s work so much they ended up commissioning 60 paintings for the University City and Haverford restaurants, which function as de facto galleries for McClellan. “The mantra of White Dog is to work with local farmers and artists,” says Sydney, who is now director of business development for Fearless Restaurants, the company that owns the White Dogs and other eateries. “It’s our pleasure to work with Jay, and it’s one way we give back to our community.”
She commissioned two paintings of her mother’s dog, Belle, who died last year. “The paintings are of such wonderful colors that, for us, seeing them creates a happy memory,” Sydney says.
McClellan feels the same way about Tip and Honey, both of whom died, their loss still fresh. But McClellan’s East Falls home is filled with renderings of his young hounds, Lucky and Ava Belle, and his other baby, the very human Sophie, whom McClellan is raising with his wife, Stephanie. Tip, Honey and Belle live on; in 2017, 24 of McClellan’s ink drawings were published as a coloring book titled Come. Sit. Color. A portion of the proceeds benefit Main Line Animal Rescue.