Pit bulls and art meet head-on -- in hopes of creating a positive image of the controversial breed.
Artist Cyrus Mejia has been a lifelong artist. "But it has only been in recent years, in the last 25 years, that my art came together with my passion for working with animals," Mejia said.
That happened when Mejia joined with several others in starting the well-known Best Friends Animal Society in Southern Utah's Kanab. His "Pits and Perception" series is on display at the Patrick Moore Gallery in Salt Lake City until the end of January.
The contemporary paintings are oil and charcoal portraits of pit bull residents at the Best Friends Animal Sanctuary. Most of the paintings are of dogs that were rescued from NFL star Michael Vick, who was sent to prison for his involvement in a dog-fighting ring.
"I was lucky when I first started thinking about making paintings of pit bulls. It was a short time after that when Best Friends rescued 22 dogs from the Michael Vick case," Mejia said. "So I had some good and willing models for my portraits."
One painting is of Georgia, a tan pit bull and former Vick dog, which shows her head cocked and her tongue hanging out of a scarred, toothless mouth. Mejia has received a lot of feedback from people who say the animal's eyes draw them to the paintings.
"A lot (of people) do say that about the eyes and I think they are important. What do they say, 'the eyes are the window to the soul'?" Mejia said. "I am glad that people do focus on the eyes."
Susan Kirby, manager of the Patrick Moore Gallery, said gallery employees have received plenty of feedback from visitors on how the paintings affected them.
"Although, I think, people's perceptions are still a little dark about the pit bulls. It's going to take a lot to change it," Kirby said.
Mejia looks back at his childhood and remembers Petey on "The Little Rascals" and the mascot for Buster Brown shoes. Back then, pit bulls were beloved as a perfect family pet.
"But things have changed, and the reason they have changed is because of people abusing these dogs and using them in fighting situations," Mejia said.
Mejia said that the problem isn't with the breed. The problem is with the people who misuse and abuse the dogs and make them more aggressive, he said.
As a result, the animals are becoming known for maulings that can be deadly. The public has turned sour on the pit bull breed because of the frequent stories in the media, Mejia said.
Mejia hopes to counter the negatives with his art, using the approach that Georgia O'Keeffe used by painting flowers so others would stop and stare at the flowers. "I want people to stop and look at the pit bulls," Mejia said. "I want people to think why ... in cities around the country, a pit-bull type dog ... ends up in a shelter and is killed."
Cities nationwide, including Ogden and North Salt Lake, have looked at regulating the breed. Some communities are considering a full-on pit bull ban. Mejia believes that is a step in the wrong direction, and one that will likely lead to a large number of pit bulls being euthanized.
"By banning the pit bull breed, it just creates more problems," Mejia said. "All kind of dogs get lumped in with supposed pit bulls and get killed under those bans. That just doesn't work. Plus, it costs a lot of money for cities to adopt that kind of policy."
Mejia hopes that people pause while looking at his paintings and question the breed's negative reputation.
"That's (the negative perception) becomes the norm and I am challenging that norm by making these paintings. But I am just one person," Mejia said.
The Patrick Moore Gallery is at 2233 S. 700 West, Salt Lake City.