The grizzly bear reared up on its hind legs, fangs bared and claws slashing downward.

Though an injured man lay at the animal’s feet, the bear’s attention was instead focused on the pack of four sleek hounds zooming around trying to protect their owner’s life. One dog nips at the bear’s legs. Another circles around to the side, while two others approach with jaws open, ready for a fight.

The scene is created by artist William R. Leigh in a gauzy oil painting of life on the Western frontier. In addition to being a riveting the work of art, it also captures the life-or-death impact that dogs played in Western history as protectors.

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“I really like to look at how people see the very animated composition in paintings like this and take it to the next thing they’re looking at,” said Jennifer Complo McNutt, curator of contemporary art at the Eiteljorg. “In this case, you have this odd perspective, perfectly drawn bringing us back to this bear. That claw is so close.”

Man’s best friend is the focus of the Eiteljorg Museum’s most recent exhibition. “Dogs: Faithful and True” looks at the integral role that canines play in society, as companions, workers and heroes. That story is told through the artwork of Native Americans as well as those who worked in the American West.

The exhibition is accompanied by programming such as an appearance by a dogsled racer, therapy dog demonstrations and workshops by Purdue University veterinarians.

Taken together as a whole, the Eiteljorg hopes to create an immersive experience covering the bond between dogs and humans.

“One of the things this exhibit does is show us how much we love our dogs. It gives a very benevolent look at dogs. These artists have taken the time to make very caring images,” McNutt said. “Their character is captured.”

“Dogs: Faithful and True” was born as the Eiteljorg officials were searching their collection for a theme that would reach a wide variety of people. Noticing that many pieces are either focused on or include dogs in some way, officials felt it would be easy to grab people’s attention, then lead them to learn more about the museum’s overall mission.

“Dogs and people enjoy a special bond, as many pet owners can attest,” said John Vanausdall, the museum’s president and CEO. “How dogs have shaped the West and Native America as protectors, companions and workers is a fascinating story that the public should not miss.

McNutt, who also trains dogs when she’s not working as a curator, likes how the exhibition’s focus gives people an easy portal to learn more about art.

“Dogs are a very accessible subject, so people will look at them. And a lot of the imagery in the exhibition has a lot of action; it’s dogs, so they’re moving,” McNutt said. “It’s an exhibition where you can really use the subject matter to build the tools in their toolbox for art.”

The exhibition makes use of the Eiteljorg’s vast collection of traditional and contemporary artwork to tell a story. Items from different time periods and facets of society, including Native American cultures, paint a well-rounded picture of the animals.

Some of the most unique features of the exhibition are the historic 19th century lithographs from John Audubon. The famous naturalist created a series of lithographs of various dog breeds, such as the Exquimaux dog and the Hare-Indian dog, the latter of which is now extinct.

Intricately woven coats and harnesses from the Cree tribes of Canada were used in weddings and other special occasions, indicating that it wasn’t just people who dressed up to go out.

“The Man Called York” by sculptor Edward James Fraughton casts a Native American on horseback, flanked by a jumping dog, in bronze.

The modern photographs of Michael Crouser spotlight the everyday activities of dogs working and playing in stark detail.

“Dogs do really important work for us. The idea of the courage and determination and unrelenting loyalty to their owner and their job is really important,” McNutt said.

Much of the exhibition focuses on historic prints, paintings and artifacts from Western culture. But contemporary artists have also contributed their work.

Wendy Red Star is an up-and-coming artist from Portland, Oregon, who was raised on the Crow reservation in Montana. Her work combines traditional Native American forms with modern imagery, brought to life in a brightly colored woven shawl featuring reservation dogs on it.

“One of the things that I like about this exhibition is, it’s the perfect way to get people to appreciate art and the three aspects of our collection: Western art, contemporary work and Native American work,” McNutt said.

A pair of life-size photographs by Shelly Mosmon are taken from her Animal Child series. The images show children, dressed in traditional Western clothing with fringe, turquoise beads and coonskin caps. Set against exuberant backdrops, the two children pose with their dogs — a young boy holding a chihuahua and a girls standing next to a massive Great Dane.

“They have such an edge because they’re larger than life, they have such a serious presentation of themselves, even though they’re children,” McNutt said. “All of those things add up to a very edgy presentation of a child-pet portrait.”

Throughout the exhibition, interactive displays let people use their hands to go deeper into the subject matter.

A section differentiates between the prints of dogs, wolves and foxes, letting people feel casts of each animal’s paws. Stations will be set up to let people color or sketch their own canine-themed artwork.

People will have the opportunity to sit on a replica dog sled, posing for a photo opportunity as if they’re crossing the finish line at the famed Iditarod dog race in Alaska.

Complementing the exhibition will be a varied slate of activities and programs to help accentuate the canine themes.

One of the more interesting events will be an appearance by Karen Land, a sleddog racer who splits her time between Indianapolis and Montana and has competed in three Iditarod races. She’ll bring one of her sled dogs to discuss the adventure of racing in the Arctic.

Trainers will do demonstrations of sheep herding and obedience, while veterinary instructors from Purdue will discuss subjects such as animal shelter medicine and the human-dog bond.

Indianapolis therapy dog organization Paws and Think will have animals available for guests to interact with, and the Indianapolis Humane Society will have its pet adoption wagon on the grounds one weekend each month.

Dog-friendly concerts will be held outdoors at the museum’s Summer Under the Sails series.

“We tried to come up with a lot of ideas to get people engaged,” McNutt said. “Dogs are such a good subject for that. You can tell someone that you’re going to give them the tools to read a painting better. Well, that doesn’t sound so great, until you’re looking at dogs.”

If you go

“Dogs: Faithful and True”

What: A look at the relationship between humans and dogs in Native American and Western societies, ranging from historic accounts to modern bonds.

Where: Eiteljorg Museum, 500 W. Washington, Indianapolis

When: Through Aug. 6

Admission: $13 for adults, $11 for seniors, $7 for kids ages 5 to 17, free for kids under 5.

Special events:

  • March 18 and 19: concert by Indianapolis Women’s Chorus, “My Heart’s Friend,” starting at 7:30 p.m. March 18 and 3 p.m. March 19.
  • April 8: public talk by Iditarod musher Karen Land and one of her sled dogs, 1 p.m.; Indianapolis Humane Society adoption wagon, noon to 4 p.m.
  • May 5: Curator’s Choice talk, “Dogs on the Move: By Sled and Travois,” noon.
  • May 13: Purdue Veterinary talk on animal shelter medicine, 1 p.m.; Indianapolis Humane Society adoption wagon, noon to 4 p.m.
  • May 19: Dog Trivia Night, 6 p.m.
  • June 3: Purdue Veterinary talk on the human-dog bond and dog behavior, 1 p.m; Indy Pet Pride event on the museum’s front lawn, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. and Indianapolis Humane Society adoption wagon, noon to 4 p.m.
  • July 8: Talk and art demonstration by artist Veryl Goodnight, 1 p.m.; Indianapolis Humane Society adoption wagon, noon to 4 p.m.

Information: eiteljorg.org

Author photo
Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at rtrares@dailyjournal.net or 317-736-2727.