According to Margaret Menchaca Alvarez, dogs smile; cats, not so much. It's a Venus and Mars sort of thing. "There are some pictures that really capture the dog's personality, that make you wonder what's that dog thinking? I don't see that as often with cats."
Alvarez is, of course, a dog person. The Houston native is also an artist ... who happens to specialize in pet portraits. As with many artists, Alvarez has a "day job." She's a full-time art teacher at a private school. A graduate of both the High School for the Performing and Visual Arts and the University of Houston, where she has a BA in studio painting, Alvarez also has a master's degree in teaching from National University.
A year and a half ago, Alvarez was looking to supplement her income. "I thought, 'How can I use what I know and make a little bit of extra money?' I love art and I love animals, so it seemed a natural fit. I've always painted but I never found a single topic or subject that I wanted to paint over and over. With animals, I did."
The first pet portrait she completed was of her own dog, a Boston Terrier. "I took a picture of my dog, painted it in black-and-white and gave it a really bright background to make it pop. And that was it; I just started a business from there. It takes me less than an hour to do a painting and it's something that I really enjoy. It's perfect."
What She Does: "I tell people I'm a working artist and I'm an art teacher. Art is pretty much all that I do. It takes up all of my time. If I'm not teaching, I'm painting. If I'm not painting, I'm teaching," she tells us.
"With my portraits of animals, I'm capturing memories. You see people treat their pets like they are their children -- I know I do," she laughs. "I try to capture what the owners love about that animal."
Why She Likes It: "I'm an animal lover and I enjoy painting dogs, so I like my work. I enjoy what people say when they see the painting. It makes me happy that I can make other people happy.
"I've had people give me pictures of animals that have passed to paint. Working on those paintings is [wonderful] because I know it's especially meaningful to that person. There are usually lots of tears when I give people their paintings, but that's especially with animals that have passed away."
What Inspires Her: "The animals inspire me, and the owners. I see how much they love their pet, that makes me want to do a good painting for them.
"Usually, I ask for a picture that the owner thinks really captures the animal's personality, something that shows what that dog is about. I try to capture that. The best response I can get is 'Oh my God, that is s-o-o-o my dog!'"
If Not This, Then What: "I enjoy decorating and collecting antiques, so I might want to do some like interior design. My house is my ongoing project that I've been doing forever. I enjoy putting things together and I always wanted to go into people's homes, redo the colors and rearrange things. Every time my best friend gets a new apartment, she calls me and says, 'Okay, it's time for you to come over and fix things.'"
If Not Here, Then Where: Alvarez says she has no plans to leave Houston anytime soon. "My family is here and I'm really very family [oriented]. My husband and [step-daughters] are here." The girls are 12 (soon to be 13) and 14 years old. "I've been in their lives since they were four and five years old," Alvarez explains.
"But if I just had to, had to go somewhere else, I would say California. I've been to New York [City] and it was just too much. Because of the weather and the fact that it's just so much more low-key, California would be a good place to be."
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What's Next: "I've been wanting to do more live painting, where somebody hands me something and I paint it right there. That's kinda for show but also to show people how I work. I've done some of that and it's fun.
"And I really want to build a brand for myself. I look at some of my paintings and I think it would make a cute notecard or nice stationary. I want to take my paintings and make them into something else. Even though it won't be paintings of people's own dogs, people are really connected to that breed. I buy a lot of Boston Terrier things -- even if it's not my dog, I like Boston Terrier things. I think lots of people are like that."
More Creatives for 2014 (In order of most recently published; click here for the full page).