“My life has gone to the dogs! But, hey! I collect unemployment. I get three squares a day and I sleep in a really cool flowerpot! Overall … life is great!”
– Charlie the Red Cat
Frank Zappa, the late rock-jazz composer and musician, jumped genre lines and minced no words when he said, “Art is making something out of nothing and selling it.”
Jim Tweedy is both an artist and a businessman, and for the 52-year-old who sharpened his skills at Southeastern Louisiana University and the New Orleans Art Institute, the twain meet every day.
Tweedy is the creator of “Friendly Doggies,” those little cartoon character pups with the oversized heads, dot eyes and bewildered looks on their faces who seem to be ambling through life, unaware of the yins and yangs perpetually spinning around them.
To be sure, these Forrest Gumps of the canine world come from great pedigree: Tweedy’s dad earned his living as an animator for the Walt Disney studios in California.
“I have one late brother,” Tweedy says. “He and I used to spend a lot of time each day at the kitchen table entertaining ourselves by drawing cartoon characters … not necessarily Disney characters, but little men, little animals; things like that. I guess at an early age the cartoon bug was planted in me. I knew early on that this is how I would earn my living. I knew that I wanted to do nothing else.”
It was while he and his new wife, Robyn, were living in an apartment behind the Montelone Hotel, and Tweedy was working as a commercial illustrator, that they took a casual walk through the French Quarter one chilled autumn afternoon. By the time that the Tweedys had walked the art gallery gauntlet from one end of Royal Street to the other, his creative juices were bubbling.
“I knew I couldn’t spend the rest of my life as a commercial illustrator,” he says. “But I had always been a little intimidated by that end of the business. I’m just not the ‘artsy’ type of artist if you know what I mean. But then one day, I simply said, ‘I can do this!’” He continues, “My wife surprised me for my birthday with an easel. I kept looking into the galleries and asked myself, ‘Who’s making money at this?’ What really turned me on was the work of Peter Max and Leroy Neiman because of the splash of colors they used. I enjoyed that … and the fact that they weren’t sweating the details. But then I thought that I didn’t want to take a month to create something that I would sell for $200, which is where I figured I’d be starting. I looked at what was selling. It was sports art and portraits of jazz musicians. I bought a four-by-five-foot canvas and did a gigantic, very loose colorful portrait of Louis Armstrong. I brought it to a gallery a block from my apartment. They loved it and said they were going to ask $1,800 for it. I thought they were nuts. Well, the next morning I go out for my morning run and I pass the gallery and there’s a ‘sold’ tag on my painting of Louis Armstrong. I was on my way. I started doing jazz musicians.”
You can do only so many Dave Brubeck and Stan Getz images; Tweedy was looking to branch out, ruffle some feathers and take on the world.
“As a joke one day, I decided to paint a portrait of my cat, Charlie. This was going to be a spoof on the Blue Dog (Cajun artist, George Rodrigue’s iconic image). I figured the opposite of a blue dog had to be a red cat. So I painted a red Charlie and stuck it into the window of the gallery figuring that was the end of that. Well, the very same day a lady comes in and commissions a different size of the red Charlie for three grand. I said, you’re kidding right? This is a joke. Well, the joke went on for a number of years. I did more than 1,000 originals of the Red Charlie with some selling for as high as $15,000.”
Tweedy did a piece of his first “friendly puppies” visiting a museum ogling a portrait of Charlie. People started coming into the gallery where this was hung and they were asking, “Do you have anything with just the dogs?”
“It was time,” Tweedy says as he lowers his fork into a plateful of omelet. He squints his eyes for impact. “…
Besides, Charlie was about 21 years old at the time. But don’t feel badly for him. He’s receiving unemployment and he sleeps all day in a huge flowerpot. He’s been to therapy and he’s come through it OK. He realizes everything must end at some point. We just got him a kitten to play with. I think the kitten is more a bother than anything at this stage of Charlie’s life. But they enjoy each other’s company.”
Tweedy put together 25 original “dogs” for an exhibition at a Houston dog show and they sold out quickly at up to $300 each.
Then came the cornerstone for Friendly Doggie craze. For the following year’s Houston dog show, Tweedy created a take-off on the famous Norman Rockwell “Self Portrait.” The goofy looking Friendly Doggie, easel in front of him, looked into a mirror and painted a realistic German Shepherd. The show’s sponsor placed the self-portrait on 500 invitations. Those invitations blew the lid off the Friendly Doggies mania that had been simmering and a new craze was created. Tweedy couldn’t create them fast enough.
A trip through Athens, Ga. begged the question: Why a German shepherd? Why not Uga, the bulldog mascot of (the University of Georgia)? Sell that to Georgia fans. And an elephant-looking canvas for the University of Alabama, that would be a biggie in Tuscaloosa; a Bluetick Coonhound for the University of Tennessee; an Arizona wildcat; a Texas longhorn; and, of course, an LSU Tiger.
Tweedy opened Friendly Doggies Merchandising, LLC, which now features: Friendly Doggies treats, napkins, mutt crackers (Tweedy has already written a book by that name while waiting for his mother to come out of surgery), doggie clothes, doghouses …
“I’ve found my niche,” Tweedy says. “I’m happy. What we need now are sales. They’ll come. Everybody loves dogs.”
The little boy artist has never really grown up. He still sketches on napkins at home – and on the tablecloth.
Anything he can find. He’s up at 4:30 every morning heading for his studio, sketching on his hand at each red light.
And Charlie the Red Cat?
Charlie shifts his position in the flowerpot and flicks his tail to tease the kitten. He yawns and grins: Who says “going to the dogs” isn’t a good thing?