Shannon Johnstone was volunteering at her town's animal shelter when she was inspired to put the less popular dogs in the spotlight, via her camera lens.
The Raleigh, N.C., resident and photography professor began a yearlong project, "Landfill Dogs," where she brought shelter dogs one by one to a former landfill converted to a park and photographed them in a flattering manner.
Johnstone's "Landfill Dogs" is part of the "Year of the Dog" exhibit at the Colorado Springs Fine Arts Center at Colorado College, which opens Saturday and runs through Oct. 14. Other artists featured in the exhibit are Nick Cave of Chicago, mixed media sculpture; Monique Crine of Denver, oil painting; Frank and Sharon Romero of Los Angeles, painting and mixed media; and Ralph Scala of Santa Fe, N.M., ceramics.
Joy Armstrong, curator of modern and contemporary art at the Fine Arts Center, noted the auspicious timing of the exhibit.
"Certainly the timing of the Chinese zodiac came into play, but an exhibition of this nature is something I've wanted to pursue for several years," she said. "Myself included, many of us as Americans have a bit of a cultural and personal obsession with our dogs. Whether you are passionate about dogs or not, I think there's a beautiful universal story here."
Johnstone's work sparked the idea for the multimedia, six-artist exhibit, Armstrong said. "I thought there has to be some way to expand upon her commentary, with other artists who have a different take on it. Her work is fascinating in a very literal context - beings being thrown away," she said.
"My heart always goes out to these open-admission shelters. They're where our taxpayer money goes. They're trying to find animals homes," Johnstone said. But when they don't, "the dogs are euthanized, and their bodies are brought to the landfill. There are 20,000 dogs buried there."
Through her "Landfill Dogs" project, Johnstone said, she "wanted to feature the dogs that are left over at the shelters. Wanted to feature them in a way that you wouldn't feel sorry for them. If you want to get to know them, here they are. They typically spend 23 hours a day in shelter, so I'd take them outside," she said.
Of the 192 dogs Johnstone photographed, 165 found homes, 21 were euthanized and six still were awaiting adoption at the end of the year.
"People started coming to the shelter specifically to adopt the landfill dogs. It totally exploded. It was kind of like you make a wish and it comes true. A lot of people rallied around the project. If people couldn't adopt, they would foster a dog," she said.
The local exhibit has the opportunity for community involvement as well.
"Through the course of the show, we will have artists and an art historian coming to speak about the legacy of animals in art, using the visual medium for activism," Armstrong said. "We're in the beginning stages of planning an adoption event, and we're also in collaboration with local vegan activist JL Fields to host a vegan pop-up market.
"We have an opportunity to have a dialogue and to share, and to think about our own relationships with our animals. And there may be opportunities to have your dog show up at the Fine Arts Center, maybe as part of this show."