Suzi Whitaker, an artist who lives in West Hartford, was commissioned by Det. Rosario Savastra’s mother to create a painting of K-9 Reign, who died in May.
By Ronni Newton
Suzi Whitaker said that she always starts with the eyes when she paints animal portraits.
“The eyes are my favorite part. I always start with the eyes and then you can see the animal,” Whitaker said in an interview in her West Hartford studio as she shared the story of her most recent work – an 11×14 painting of K-9 Reign.
Reign, the beloved police-dog-turned-pet of West Hartford Police Det. Rosario Savastra, had retired from service in 2012 and was euthanized on May 24 at age 14½after losing the ability to walk due to degenerative back issues.
Whitaker, an artist who has worked in multiple mediums ranging from oil painting to glass sculpture, has been painting pets for the past three years and on May 24 appeared on a segment on “Better Connecticut” to discuss her work.
“That was the day Reign was put down,” Whitaker said.
“Patricia Savastra [Det. Rosario Savastra’s mother] said when she went home that day she was a mess. She had recorded ‘Better Connecticut’ and was watching it and there was the pet segment with me. She knew then that she had to get a portrait of Reign,” Whitaker said.
Patricia Savastra contacted Whitaker right away and the two emailed back and forth for a few days. Patricia Savastra sent over some photos of Reign, as well as some with Reign and her son together.
“We finally settled on one of just Reign. He’s such an extraordinary dog,” Whitaker said. “That family loved Reign so much, there’s such a bond.”
Whitaker said she actually cried while painting the portrait.
Patricia Savastra wanted to give the painting to her son as a surprise on Father’s Day. That didn’t give Whitaker much time, but she said she would have stayed up all night if necessary just to get it done. She estimates that the painting, done in acrylics, took about 12 hours of work.
In the photograph Whitaker used, Reign was wearing his bulletproof vest, but just a few days before Whitaker was set to deliver the painting Patricia Savastra asked if Reign’s badge could be added. “Putting the badge in just made it,” Whitaker said.
Patricia Savastra came to pick up the painting on Saturday, the day before Father’s Day. She told Whitaker that her son was incredibly touched when he saw it.
“My mom stopped over to see my daughter and asked me to get something from her car,” Rosario Savastra said. “[The painting] was sitting on the seat. When I first saw it, it caught me off guard. I thought it was a photo,” he said.
“She caught not just his physical presence but his personality,” Rosario Savastra said. “It’s one of the best things I’ve ever received.”
Rosario Savastra said he was touched, and could tell that Whitaker had put so much emotion into the painting. “Just to know someone put her heart and soul into it, to commemorate my partner, my friend.”
“Reign was such a special dog that you just say his name in town and everyone knew who he was,” Whitaker said. She was honored to paint him, and hopes to have the opportunity to paint and honor other service dogs.
Trained as a commercial artist, the Wellsburg, WV, native who now lives in West Hartford, started painting pet portraits about three years ago at the suggestion of her now-fiancé Jim Healy, an architect and collector/creator of vintage furniture and accessories. Whitaker had been working as a sculptor at West Virginia glass company but was laid off and caring for her mother who had cancer when she started painting again.
“I went to Catholic school through eighth grade and there were no art classes,” Whitaker said. She convinced her mother to let her take oil painting classes from a “really old woman” in town. When she reached high school, Whitaker took as many art classes as she could.
She started college at West Virginia University, but then transferred to the Art Institute of Pittsburgh. “At first I thought I wanted to do fashion illustration but I didn’t know how to sew, so I chose visual arts,” Whitaker said.
When she went to work as a commercial artist, she lost the time and energy to paint, but years later rediscovered it.
“I paint animals for whatever people want,” Whitaker said. She does pet portraits to hang on the wall, as well as Christmas cards and other objects. She also specializes in painting angels.
Her business has grown primarily through word of mouth and her Facebook page, Suzi Whitaker Art, and last year she was the featured artist at the “Brews, Blues & Biscuits” event in Avon. Her clients come from all over the country.
“I know something about all of the animals. I know their stories, and I want all the information I can get to really know the subject, not just the photo,” said Whitaker.
Some of the animals are currently pets, and others are beloved pets that have passed away. One portrait she did was of an older man and his dog, both of whom had recently died.
Whitaker said it took a while to get Reign’s eyes just right, to capture his noble and strong, yet kind demeanor. Other than adding the badge she strayed from the photograph only to add a bit more coloring, to give more life to the tongue, the teeth, she said.
“I develop attachments to the paintings. It’s hard to part with them, especially this one,” she said.
Whitaker and Rosario Savastra spoke by phone after he received the painting. She said that hearing how touched he was has convinced her that she is doing the right thing with her work, bringing people joy.
Rosario Savastra said he’s looking for a great spot for the painting. “I want to see it every day.”
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