WHEN artist Vanessa Pollen immigrated to New Zealand three years ago, she says leaving her beloved pets behind was a wrench.
“It was heart-breaking. It was very hard,” says Vanessa who, along with her husband, Greg, and their two teenage children, left Zimbabwe in search of a better life, moving first to Warkworth for a year before heading to Tauranga and settling recently in Ohope.
With the family having been held at gunpoint inside their Zimbabwean home and with everyday safety requiring constant vigilance, Vanessa says they knew it was time to leave.
“Everything was getting difficult. Even the infrastructure in Zimbabwe is collapsing”. But leaving behind the family’s many pets was, she says, the hardest thing she’d had to do.
“We had four dogs, two little sausage dogs, a Weimaraner and a Weimaraner-cross chocolate lab. And two cats as well as chickens and a guinea fowl.”
Unwilling to put any of her animals through a six-month quarantine, Vanessa says she chose instead to find them all new homes in Zimbabwe.
It was the heartbreak of leaving her animals that has since led Vanessa to start Pet Portraits, a business where Vanessa skilfully recreates the images of other people’s pets in pencil drawings, bringing joy not only to pet owners, but, she says, considerable joy to herself. “I love the process of drawing them. I find it comforting, soothing.”
Vanessa says on arriving in New Zealand, she’d been captivated by the number of people out walking their dog.
“It’s not common in Zimbabwe for people to walk their dogs. It’s just not really a thing.”
She says dogs are commonly kept by people who have room for them to run free, “and if you saw a dog being walked, it would usually be the gardener”.
Enjoying the new sight, observing the “different relationship between people and their dogs” in her new country, Vanessa says she began, after many years of having put her artistic talents aside, to once again draw. To draw animals.
“I enjoy it so much and it also helps with my feelings of having not been able to bring our pets with us”.
On a whim, Vanessa says she decided to use a Facebook Lost and Found Pets site to advertise her availability to draw animal portraits. The response, she says, was instant.
Working as a teacher aide at Whakatane High School, Vanessa says since she placed the advertisement, she has needed to find the time to draw every single day. “Yes, I had a big response, but I am loving it.”
Working from a photograph of a pet – “the better-quality photo, the easier it is to draw” – Vanessa says she spends anything from eight hours, up to the more typical 30 hours or more, on each animal drawing.
“I’m a perfectionist,” she says of her painstaking work that is garnering so much attention.
“If the photograph is not great quality, it takes a lot longer because the fine detail won’t be clear. I often find myself Googling images of that type of animal so I can look more closely at how their hair lays and that sort of thing.”
Vanessa also draws portraits of people, all using her considerable skill, which she had long ago put aside.
“I did go to art college, but I never finished the course,” she says, choosing instead to begin working. “I wanted to be earning money and I didn’t think my art was going to be good enough.”
Vanessa says having a portrait of your pet is not a common thing in Zimbabwe. “If someone wants art for their home, mostly they will buy from a well-known artist. And often, it’s of wildlife.” Though a drawer of wildlife herself, she says it’s difficult to gain recognition as an artist in Zimbabwe. “I shelved it,” she says.
Rediscovering her talent and love of drawing since arriving in New Zealand is, she says, bringing her so much joy. “It’s just wonderful and I’m enjoying every minute of it.”
In a twist of fate, gruelling on many levels, and despite having undergone a full medical just months before leaving Zimbabwe, Vanessa was diagnosed with breast cancer soon after arriving in New Zealand.
Her treatment has been successful, and she has had “the best possible outcome,” but she says an unfortunate consequence is that she is required to get clearance five years after the diagnoses before being eligible to apply for permanent residency in New Zealand. And a personal consequence of that – no new pets until the family is permanently settled.
Meanwhile, it will be recreating images of other people’s animals that keeps her connected to the world of animals she loves.
Vanessa says all of their family pets went to wonderful homes. “And our two little sausage dogs were able to be rehomed together, which was fantastic.” Keeping in touch with her pets’ new owners, she says regular updates and photos are a pleasure. “I know all of the animals are very happy.”
By Lorraine Wilson