At the start of 2020, California resident Ed Attanasio ran a small ad agency and was an artist-in-residence at San Jose’s Kaleid Gallery.
Then the coronavirus pandemic shut everything down.
“I got two phone calls and pretty much was furloughed,” Attanasio, 62, told TODAY. “I thought, ‘What am I going to do to occupy my time?’”
But that same day, a friend quarantining with his family reached out to say: “Do me a favor and draw some art for my kids. They’re bouncing off the walls.”
Happy to help, Attanasio drew a picture of their dog and sent it over with some other drawings of animals. The little girl demanded, “My dog is not blue.” But her older brother explained, “This is abstract art. Ed’s like Picasso.”
Word spread and other people started requesting drawings of their pets.
“That’s when I got the idea: I should turn this into a charity model,” he said. “Why not? Kids and pets have always been my causes.”
So Attanasio launched the Pandemic Pet Project. People send him a photo of their pet through his Facebook page, and he creates a free mini-masterpiece on a Post-it. In lieu of payment, he asks them to make a suggested donation of $50 to their favorite animal rescue organization.
He’s drawn more than 900 pet portraits since then, mainly of dogs and cats but also snakes, birds, ferrets, a llama and a blind raccoon. While people donate directly to charities, he estimates the project has raised about $40,000 for shelters and rescue groups.
“There was supposed to be a two-pet limit, but I’m a pushover,” he said with a chuckle. “I just say, ‘As long as you donate something for each pet that I draw, I really don’t care. Pay it forward.’”
One woman promised to donate $100 for each of her six black cats. He was initially puzzled as to how to make the seemingly identical cats stand out but then settled on creative patterns and polka dots to showcase their personalities.
“I’m always thinking that I want them all to look different,” he said. “Different color combinations, different shapes, different ears, different noses. It’s original art.”
Attanasio never trained as an artist, though his father was a painter. In fact, he had worked as a journalist, ad copywriter and stand-up comedian until suffering a “mini-stroke” in 2009 at age 50. At the time, he weighed 350 pounds and had diabetes and high blood pressure, so he said no one was surprised.
“I turned my life around and lost more than 120 pounds,” he said.
But due to the stroke, he lost his ability to retrieve words. For instance, he’d want to say “mustache” but couldn’t find it. So he’d offer “hair” and then “chin” — then realize that would imply “beard” and keep searching.
Everything changed when he got busted for doodling during a speech therapy session. Luckily, his therapist was impressed and suggested he continue creating art every day to engage his brain. His wife at the time bought a pallet of Post-its for his artwork and secretly kept the drawings he’d stick to the refrigerator or give to friends — more than 400 of them.
“At the end of my rehab, they had a little tea for me, and they pulled out all the Post-it notes that were in this notebook, and I was freaked out, to look at them all together like that. I didn't know they were being saved.”
He put together a collage of his baseball drawings — and it sold for $3,000 at his very first gallery showing.
In his new life as an artist, Attanasio frequently donates artwork to charity auctions to raise money for pet rescue groups. During the Pandemic Pet Project, he also donated portraits of adoptable senior dogs to Muttville Senior Dog Rescue, his favorite animal organization, to entice potential adopters.
A rescue group in Wichita, Kansas, also approached him about drawing adoptable dogs. Adopters would go home with a new best friend as well as a portrait of their pet.
“We were on a roll there where I was drawing the dog, and as it was traveling to Wichita in the mail, the dog was in the process of getting adopted out. It happened like three times," he said. "And they kept going, ‘Keep drawing, man. These dogs are getting adopted.’”
Attanasio has sent pet portraits to 25 states and 15 countries, including Mexico, Netherlands, France, Bulgaria and Turkey. He’s paced himself by creating four drawings each day, which he then posts on Facebook. Often people will also share photos of their pets with their portraits.
At the end of the year, when he’s reached his goal of 1,000 pet portraits, Attanasio says he will finally “rest my hand.” He’s not sure what his next project will be, though he might create a graphic novel “yearbook” of the pets he’s drawn in 2020.
Through the project, he hopes he’s brought some cheer and healing to animal lovers as the world grapples with the ongoing pandemic. For his part, he’s been deeply touched by messages from supporters and amazed by the hard work of staff and volunteers for rescue organizations. Many people requested portraits of pets they fostered this year.
“I got a glimpse into some of their lives. It’s like an ongoing circus there,” he said. “They get new animals every other week and they’re getting them adopted out and they’re taking good care of them. I just love it.”