One woman's pursuit to reclaim Himalayan art using dog pictures

By Cale Guthrie Weissman , written on March 19, 2014

From The News Desk

Michelle Page has been traveling to Nepal for 27 years; she probably never intended to make a business out of it. Neither does she own a dog, yet dog enthusiasts are her prime customer base. Funny how things work out.

Page's business, Nepal Art Dogs, has been around for seven years now. It's an artisanal dog lover's dream. The idea is simple: dog owners (or any pet, for that matter) provide her with pictures of their pets, she gives the pictures to Nepalese artists, and the artists draw creative renditions of the beast.

But the history is what makes it so compelling. The artists Page hires aren't simply Nepalese artists trying to make a buck (although, that would be a great business unto itself). They represent a dying subsection of painters that once populated the streets of Kathmandu, whose work was on nearly every surface. These artists' jobs were to make vibrant, beautiful signs that had a message -- for example, "Beware of Dog."

These signs, according to Page, were plastered nearly everywhere during the period when she first began visiting the Himalayan country. "[Nepal] always had a vibrant sign painting culture," she said. This was greatly due to a large illiteracy rate in the country, she says, which thus required realistic and overt illustrations to get across signs' message and meaning. "The sign painters had the job where they had to put figures on the sign to explain what's going on," she explained.

Over the years, however, these signs' popularity began to wane. They became less popular and started to be viewed as unwanted kitsch. With each trip she would take, she noticed an indigenous art form slowly disappearing. This is what led to her Nepal Art Dog business idea. "I thought I'd try to save an art form that is dying," she told me.

For over two decades, Page had worked in Southern California as an assistant film editor. As she was mulling over the sign painting business, she was also noticing the necessities of her work changing. She loved her job, because of the craft it required. She physically handled film to meticulously edit every frame. Digital, however, changed all of this to make editing a more automated and computerized process. "My job had become redundant," she said.

So, in 2008 she stopped her film work and started Nepal Art Dogs, as a way to address both dying art forms, and never looked back.

At the time it got a little press, but has remained steady since then through word of mouth. Currently she charges $250 per pet portrait. She requires a minimum of 20 orders in order to break even for her each of her twice-a-year visits to Nepal. While there, she searches out local artists (many of whom she's worked with in the past) and pays them to make three signs for each pet. The owners get to choose which one they like best; the other two go to museums, galleries, and boutiques. While Page she still uses money saved from her film editing days, she says that her art business is her only source of income currently.

She believes a lot of her popularity is due to sheer luck. When the business first started, she was able to get the attention of the painter Ed Moses, as well high-ups from the Getty Museum. All of them bought their own dog-signs, and also helped get her name out into the art world. Right out the door, she was able to snag a gallery show in Ojai. While her business is definitely dog-centric, she says it is the art community that's really gotten Nepal Art Dogs where it is. Currently she is showing some of her artists' work at an exhibit about migrant labor. These are the kinds of gigs that keep her going.

"I have the best customers in the world," she says of her adoring fans. "They're professors, they're curators, they're artists." And most of them come back for seconds. In all, she has sold more than 2,500 signs.

This seems to be the perfect business for a woman like Page. Business has remained steady over the last seven years, she says. Her orders never become overwhelming, but they are never too few, either. And, best of all, it allows her to travel twice a year to the places she loves. She also gets to work with some very interesting people. Recently she even spent a week in Arizona with a customer.

And though her business predominately catches the fancy of dog lovers, somewhat ironically she herself has never owned a dog. She loves them -- she ends each email with the word "doggedly" -- but given her schedule and penchant for world-traveling, she has decided it would be impossible to keep such a pet. Instead, she has chickens.

And that's a dream-like existence for the Southern California free spirit she is. "Other people's dogs, other people's children," she remarks. "The perfect way to live a life."

[Image via Nepal Art Dogs on Facebook]