By Josette Keelor
When she visited Wolf Park in Indiana, Strasburg painter Kay Witt learned how very unlike dogs wolves are. They're bigger, their fur is coarser, and when they licked her face, she could feel their teeth.
Once a week, the wildlife reserve hosts "howl night" with the wolves, Witt said. "People howl and they howl back."
Anyone can visit Wolf Park, she said, but only sponsors are allowed to enter the wolf enclosure. She sponsors the park for love of the wolves and for what they bring to her artwork.
Witt has been painting all her life, but it was only in the last five years that she became interested in wolves, after adopting an Alaskan malamute, a bigger version of the husky.
"It was through her that I learned about wolves," Witt said.
Working with pastels, she uses a soft velour paper because of its texture and the way it holds the color.
"You'll go home with a painting that looks like it's made of fur," she said.
When visiting Wolf Park in May, she took some of her own pictures, but mainly she relies on professional photographs she purchases online from Monty Sloan, a wolf behaviorist Witt said has the largest collection of wolf images in the country.
"He enabled me to take my vision and make it possible," she said.
In her painting she usually starts with the eyes and works her way down, because if the eyes aren't right, the painting isn't going to work.
"I want my work to speak to you," she said. "I want it to say something."
From responses to paintings on her website, www.wildwolfportraits.com, Witt said she has touched a lot of art lovers' hearts.
One of her most popular paintings, called "Watchful Eyes," depicts a wolf curled up on a bed of snow, its eyes peering out over a fluffy gray tail.
"I get continual comments on that one," she said.
One of the comments came by mail saying, "While we have other wolf prints and paintings, 'Watchful Eyes' is clearly the jewel of our collection."
"And that's what art should do," Witt said, "It should move you. It should speak to you."
Having built a career for herself through her blog and website and by showing her artwork around the region, Witt has been preparing to begin teaching classes and sell note cards through Kustom Krafts, which also has selected five of her paintings, including "Watchful Eyes," to become a needlepoint pattern.
"I've always been a stay-at-home mom, but I've always painted," said Witt. "I've painted in every medium and in lots of subject matter. I like to do lots of things," she said. "I love doing this. I could do this for hours. I get lost in it."
Of her current work, she said, "This is going to be a good one. I've got a feeling about it."
Witt plans to visit Wolf Park again soon and said if she lived closer, she would be there all the time. More than enjoying being with the wolves, she said it's essential to her work.
"To paint a portrait, [you] would want to talk with people, to meet them," she said. "It just comes through you, and it comes out in your work."
Contact Community Engagement Editor Josette Keelor at 540-465-5137, ext. 176, or firstname.lastname@example.org