So we started working on this article in March… because March is Adopt A Rescued Guinea Pig Month, and I thought it would be extra appropriate to feature Massachusetts-based artist Lesley De Santis then. However, our crazy schedules got in the way, and we’re posting it now, even though we’re in April already (where does the time go!?!). But helping rescued guinea pigs (and all other animals) and giving them a new forever home is something I feel strongly about regardless of which month it is, so it doesn’t matter.
Lesley opened her Etsy shop When Guinea Pigs Fly in January of 2010 and it immediately became one of my favorite stores. Her paintings, which almost exclusively feature Guinea Pigs, are adorable, and very funny. The Guinea Pigs are often depicted as historical figures (Beethoven, Robin Hood, Schubert, etc.) and many come with a cute little “blurb”.
In this second part of our “interview with the artist” series (the first was Amber Alexander and yes, I do see the trend here – I’m obviously completely smitten with anthropomorphized animals), we get to hear the story behind the Guinea Pigs and get to know the multi-talented, funny and very inspirational Lesley a little bit more.
Lesley, how long have you been an artist?
I’ve always been creative and had artistic tendencies, so though it probably sounds a bit cliché, I suppose I was born one! In terms of being an artist in a more professional light, I’ve only been publicly selling my artwork since I opened my Etsy shop in the beginning of 2010. Prior to that, I had done some pet portraits here and there, and actually illustrated a couple of ballet-themed children’s books that are now making the rounds being put to music and performed by dancers across the country!
Oh, I didn’t know about the books, what are the titles?
Gwendolyn, the Graceful Pig and Gwendolyn Goes Hollywood (they’re under my maiden name)
How did you get started as an artist?
If you’d peeked into my home during kindergarten, you’d hear me asking the same question day after day after day. “Mom, what should I draw?” haha. I had my big pad of newsprint paper and my baskets of markers and I’d sit and draw all the time, but I’d always struggle coming up with ideas. Over time, I enrolled in some outside-of-school art programs to teach me new mediums to try and help me learn how to ‘see like an artist’.
Are you self-taught or formally trained?
I’m mostly self-taught. I grew up in a very small town and in addition to my school having a limited arts budget, most kids didn’t take art class seriously, seeing it more like a study hall, which made me sad. I didn’t go to art school (though I thought about it, and still may someday!). But the thing that transformed me the most was actually an open studio program I attended in late middle school/early high school led by a wonderful, enthusiastic, free-spirited woman named Patty Dugan as our mentor. She helped me to free my inhibitions about painting big (though my illustrations are small now more out of convenience for making prints from them), and often had me painting on canvases over 4′ tall. She would come and stand with us and help us to try to see shapes and values of light and shadow, rather than trying to paint what we thought we were looking at. She inspired me and lit a fire under my artistic abilities that I didn’t know I had.
Most of your art features Guinea Pigs – why Guinea Pigs specifically?
That’s a great question! Guinea pigs just tickle me like there’s no tomorrow. I had never paid them much mind my whole life, growing up with only cats for pets in my house. Once I got to college, I adopted a hamster and fell in love with him (rest in peace, William Wigglesworth!). I’m not sure what made me want to look into guinea pigs, but I was browsing Craigslist one day and looking at the pets, and this baby guinea pig at a local shelter was on there. Something in my heart told me he needed to be in my life, and now looking back on the journey since then, it turned out to be so true. Something about that little guy just melted my heart, and he opened up my eyes to the world of guinea pigs! They’re so cute, and sweet, and I love the sounds they make. Their little floppy ears and their teeny lower lips…it sounds ridiculous but I guess they turned into my muse! haha. They just make me smile.
Cattie: I absolutely agree, they are the most adorable little creatures, and so sweet.
How did you come up with the idea of Guinea Pigs as famous historical figures?
My first guinea pig painting ever was ‘Superpiggie’, the main image in my Etsy shop. Next came the guinea pig floating with the balloon. And then Beatrice Buttercream and Cheswick Tiddlywink, the Victorian couple. I was sketching in my sketchbook and just thought portraiture of guinea pigs dressed in period costume was a really hilarious concept. I was doodling little ideas for different ‘proper piggies’ and somehow Mozart came to mind, with his frilly shirt and gilded jacket. And when I realized that Ludwig could actually become LudPIG…it was all over.
LOL. Speaking of Ludpig… I love all your paintings, but my favorites are “Ludpig Van Beethoven” and “Robin Hood”. Do you have a favorite piece or character from your own art?
Aw thank you so much! Hmm… I think one of my favorite pieces is probably the birthday party. Those little characters all have such strong personalities, I can feel who they are and want to explore more pieces featuring them. For individual characters, I’m kind of partial to Ferdinand in the reindeer suit. His little back story that came to me lends him to more outfits in future paintings. And he’s just so excited haha.
So can we expect to see more of the same characters in your art?
I hope so! I think the birthday party gang is definitely going to continue to have more picnics (I just created a new piece last night actually with them having pancakes!), and Ferdinand will have more costume parties to attend. But I also have ideas for other characters that have yet to appear. We’ll have to see what happens!
What is your creative process like?
I tend to be very sporadic with things and I may make several drawings and paintings within days of one another, and then artist’s block creeps in and I creatively dry up for weeks or months. Sometimes it’s nice to just sketch and see where my brain takes me, and other times I’ll see something on Facebook, on TV, or elsewhere in my travels that inspires me and gives me an idea.
When I am in a good ‘flow state’, generally I’ll sketch my idea on drawing paper, often starting over a bunch of times (guinea pigs, as simply as they’re shaped, are actually really hard to draw sometimes!). I’ll chip away at it until it looks how I want it, and then if I’m doing a watercolor, I’ll trace my pencil drawing onto watercolor paper. I used to press my paper against a window to trace, or in moments of true desperation…the oven door with the light on haha. Thankfully this Christmas my parents gave me a light table! If it’s to become an acrylic painting, it gets more tricky because I use canvas. So I’ll prop the pencil drawing up and try as best I can to draw it over by eye in pencil on the canvas.
Do you ever have to push yourself to be productive?
CONSTANTLY! Ohh my goodness it’s my tragic downfall. Like many artists, my brain and life are a bit of creative chaos. I’m currently working with an AMAZING creativity career coach named Michelle Ward (whenigrowupcoach.com) who is helping me to figure out where I’m headed and how to establish goals, embrace my whim-oriented tendencies and somehow stay more productive throughout!
Is painting your full time job?
Not at the moment, and I’m kind of glad. I’m a bit of a Renaissance Soul, meaning I have many many interests that all vie for my attention at different times. My career is in a transition period right now from having a more corporate past to more fully embracing and trusting my creative side, so while this may never be full-time in the traditional sense, it’s definitely a big part of my life and will continue to be!
Cattie: I can totally relate to the renaissance soul thing, you should see the number of unfinished products I have lying around the house (I actually have two copies of Barbara Sher’s “Refuse to choose” because I thought I had lost the book and bought a new one, and then the first one surfaced!).
Lesley: I love that book!! It totally kickstarted me to exploring what it means to be a ‘scanner’ and I found the exercises so helpful (and, as you can probably imagine, I got sidetracked and didn’t keep them all up, hahah. oh the irony). I recently bought “The Renaissance Soul” by Margaret Lobenstine and I’m looking forward to digging into that too.
Cattie: Oh, I hadn’t heard of that one, must check it out. Thanks for the tip!
How does a painting come together for you? Do you finish them in one sitting or are they work in progress for a while?
Usually I do my paintings in one sitting. Sometimes I’ll come back over the course of a few consecutive days for a few hours at a time. It’s rare that I give up on a painting, but I have one of poor little Marie Antoinette that I have probably painted over about 10 times and still can’t get right. All those folds of silk in her dress, ahh! I’m determined to finish her eventually!
Is there a message you are trying to convey with your art?
I don’t think I have a cut-and-dry message, per se, but more of an inward intention. My goal with the artwork I create for When Guinea Pigs Fly is to make people really happy when they look at it, ideally even make them laugh aloud. That’s how I know if a sketch will make it into a painting. I’ll show it to my husband, and if he laughs, it’s a keeper, and if he doesn’t, then I need to keep tweaking it. I kind of live for that ‘burst of joy’ reaction, and I’ve had the real treat of selling my artwork in person just a couple of times and getting to see strangers’ reactions (particularly children!). For some, this might seem a bit safe, like I’m not pushing the envelope and making people think. But for me, it kind of is! It’s bringing people’s attention back to their inner child, showing that there is still so much joy on this planet, and that joy spreads like fire. I want people to see my artwork and forget their stresses and worries for a moment, to feel like their day is a little brighter, and to maybe give the humble guinea pig a second look.
Cattie: You’ll be happy to know that that’s exactly what they do for me: they make me smile and forward links to them to everyone I know.
Lesley: aw thank you so much! that makes me so happy
What inspires you (besides Guinea Pigs)?
Oh my goodness if I listed it out your website would crash! hahah. I just love being alive and living on this beautiful planet and all of the possibilities and mysteries that surround us. Nature inspires me greatly and I don’t spend enough time out enjoying it. Animals, particularly cute ones, are probably pretty obvious inspiration for me! Seeing a play, going to a museum, or taking a walk to a local farm are all things that fill me up with new life for creating.
Do you have any favorite artists?
I’m still getting acquainted with current artists…there are so many to explore and Etsy is making that a fun journey of discovery! I love Beatrix Potter and only recently looked into her work more fully. A couple of people told me some of my art reminded them of her, which I felt like I couldn’t even accept such a high compliment! I got a book of her work out of the library and practically wept from the cuteness on every page.
Dallas Clayton is endlessly inspiring. I also love the work of an artist I just recently discovered named Jen Mann. She does amazing work combining people with animals and that dynamic is something I’d love to explore more outside of my whimsical illustrations. Other Etsy artists I love are Belle and Boo, Splodgepodge, The House of Mouse, Holli, Myko Bocek Studios, gosh there are so many. I also love fashion photography and spend a lot of time admiring portfolios of talented young photographers like Emily Tebbetts, Parker Fitzgerald, and others.
Cattie I’ve often thought your work reminds of Beatrix Potter too, especially the “Birthday Party”.
Do you do custom work (say if someone would like a painting of their own Guinea Pig as a famous character)?
This is a tricky question because I have advertised that option here and there in the past, but currently I’m not doing custom paintings (I say this now but it may change!). Since I do sometimes find it hard to stay motivated, and…and this may be kind of surprising… painting, particularly the acrylic style that I use for the portraits like Beethoven, doesn’t come easily to me, it’s tricky for me to offer custom commissions without getting nervous that I will take too long/not be able to deliver at the level I want to (that Marie Antoinette painting is haunting me!!).
What is the hardest part of being an artist?
Struggling to feel clear-headed and not second-guessing myself. I find when I haven’t drawn or painted in a long time, the idea of doing it gets bigger and scarier until I’m stopped in my tracks. Keeping the momentum going and focusing without pigeon-holing myself is a challenge I face often. It’s also hard to ‘stay the course’ of creativity and not be lured back to a more unfulfilling day job promising financial stability.
And the best part?
Knowing that people all over the world are smiling because of something I’ve created! It’s such a powerful concept, and makes me feel so happy!
Do you do any other creative “things”?
Yessiree! In addition to visual art, I write musicals (one is here: http://alicemusical.com and another is here: http://www.nctcompany.org/tortoiseandhare/), play piano, sing, and I’ve tried my hand at a batch of cold-processed soap or two (hoping to do more with that!). I’ve previously done some theatre, both onstage and off with acting, accompaniment, set design… but I can’t dance for beans haha. I also love to write and I’m looking forward to hopefully launching a website soon in support of living a creative life.
Cattie’s note: Lesley was previously the resident composer, accompanist, and music director for Cellar Door Stage in Stoneham, Massachusetts. In the past, she has served as accompanist and music director for the Stoneham Theatre, and has been a composer and music director for the Kidstock! Creative Education Center in Winchester, MA.
I thought I had an overwhelming to-do list, but you have more projects going on than anyone I know! (the Etsy shop, musicals, a blog, Squidoo, Bounding Leap, keeping up with social marketing…) How do you stay on top of it all?
Hehe that’s a great question that I often struggle with, myself But in the true Renaissance Soul style, I’m not usually doing allll of those things at once (whew!), and some are no longer really actively happening. For example, I’m proud of launching Bounding Leap, but my career’s headed in a more artsy and musical direction now. It was like I proved to myself that I could do it, but I realized I was more interested in the planning and launching part than the actual growing and maintaining the business in an area that’s not as creative as what I typically pursue. It’s nice to have my co-founder there so if she’d like to develop it further at any time, it’s an option for her. And right now, for example, I’m not actively working on any new musicals. I don’t doubt that at some point in the future I’ll return to it, but I’m in a little musical lull at the moment. Thankfully the interests often overlap, wax and wane, and I’m working with my career coach to try to feel okay with that and not put so much pressure on myself to do everything at once (or choose anything permanently!).
Final question – what’s next? What are the plans for the future?
Time will tell, I suppose! As I continue to work with my career coach, little tidbits of what may be ahead are sprinkling in. As I mentioned, I’m working on building a blog/website celebrating unconventional living and creative entrepreneurship. I’d also love to write and illustrate some of my own children’s books, even if I self-publish. Maybe some more musicals. I’ll also be attending a puppetry workshop this spring and would love to get more involved with that. (I made a puppet video in February that got a positive response. I’d always shrugged that pastime off, but secretly wished I could be on Sesame Street someday…so I’m gonna see where that goes!) I just want to share my ideas and work with others and see what happens. The excitement for me is seeing how it all connects and what unfolds!
Cattie: That video is HILARIOUS! I especially love the guest appearance by the cat.
Thank you so much Lesley for taking the time out of your (insanely busy) schedule to answer all these questions! You have really inspired me, and hopefully my readers, to not be afraid to try new things, welcome and embrace new ideas, and believe in your talents and passions.
If you are interested in adopting or fostering a Guinea Pig, contact your local shelter (you can also find available animals in your area on Petfinder.com), but before doing so, please make sure that you have the space and time to make your new friend’s home the best it can possibly be. Guinea Pigs are very friendly and social animals who need a companion (in the wild, they live in large herds), so please consider adopting two, and make sure to spend a lot of time with them. They need a constant supply of good quality hay to stay healthy, a large cage with a solid floor, a house to hide in, food and water, and lots of time to exercise outside of the cage.
All images are courtesy of and © Lesley De Santis