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These dogs get around

A dying craft in Nepal gets new life thanks to a local traveler intrigued by the tradition.

April 24, 2008|Bettijane Levine | Times Staff Writer

WHEN she first went to Nepal in 1986, Michelle Page was struck by images of dogs hand-painted on metal signs hung above shops. "They were beautiful, personable dogs," she says. "Not generic, but very specific different breeds and sizes, as if the artists actually knew the dogs they were painting."

Some artworks were naive in style, others very detailed, Page says. She soon realized that artisans in Nepal were painting all sorts of animals on those 1-foot-square metal sheets. Signs with a pig, goat or chicken denoted the butcher shop within.

But the dogs were the most compelling and unforgettable. Some were the equivalent of "beware of dog" signs one might see here. Others translated into something more benign: "Brilliant dog in here."

Page, an assistant film editor who lives in Santa Monica, returned to Nepal repeatedly. Four years ago, she noticed that the dog signs she loved so much were being replaced by more contemporary and commercial versions: computer-generated images mass-produced on vinyl. She started collecting the old "danger dog" signs she found in shops. Then she sought out the studios where artisans created the signs, as well as banners and license plates. In June she traveled to Nepal again and returned with 100 dog signs commissioned from artisans whose work she particularly liked.

"It's just a hobby, not my vocation," says Page, who thought she'd try to find a market here for the work.

The signs sold out in weeks, so Page returned to Nepal in December for 300 more dog paintings, some of which now go for $150 at the Santa Monica Museum of Art and the Craft and Folk Art Museum. Page has started up her own website, nepaldog.com, and has even begun taking orders for custom portraits. Clients send a photo of their dog (or rabbit or cat) to Nepal with Page, and she commissions three or four artisans to paint the animal's image on metal. Clients pick the version they like (for $200), and she sells the rest.

Christine Knoke, a curator at the Norton Simon Museum in Pasadena, says she saw the "danger dogs" at the Santa Monica museum store.

"I was fascinated by them and their folk-art quality," says Knoke, who has commissioned portraits of her own three dogs.

Page says her side business has yet to break even, but she likes the idea of keeping alive the work of artists so far away. "Their income from painting signs is dwindling because of new technology," she says. "It's no different there than anywhere else."

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bettijane.levine@latimes.com

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