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Art Goes to The Dogs

The Museum of Modern Arf brings alternative art to Clarendon.

Follow the rainbow of chalk drawing on Clarendon's sidewalks and at the end is the Museum of Modern Arf, a canine-themed alternative art gallery that connects creativity with local community life.

"Today's art world takes itself so seriously," Director John Aaron said Friday, during a concert fundraiser. "It's seen as just so cool and lofty. But my own segue into here kind of discounts that seriousness."

The Arf is unlike any other gallery. Dogs, as the name implies, are the most prevalent subjects seen on its walls. Climbing the staircase from Hudson Street, visitors are greeted first by a small statue of the Egyptian jackal god Anubis. A colorful portrait of a golden retriever watches from the highest part of the main hallway like a reposed Buddha. And amid the messy stacks of art books, the easels and idiosyncratic knick-knacks of Aaron's studio, are his irreverent and sometimes surreal porcelain dog sculptures.

"The concepts of enthusiasm over intelligence are notions that fuel the work," Aaron said. "Dogs make grand personal mythology without having to tackle self-portraiture. Obvious observations are that they are faithful, protective, humorous without trying to be, and they exude true love without the expectation of it being returned."

Yet, along with portraying the lovable qualities of man's best friend, Aaron's dog portraiture is linked to local life. A recent commissioned work, for example, depicts a stalwart Scotty sitting outside a Clarendon café. The patron funding it, Aaron said, wanted something that captures life in the neighborhood before encroaching development changes its unique charm.

Community is an integral part of what the Arf does. Many of the chalk drawings are done by local children in weekly gatherings organized by the museum, though the artists who frequent the gallery contribute some just for fun. With funding from the county, it has also hosted chalk drawing festivals, blocking off Hudson Street from Wilson Boulevard to decorate the cold concrete with Crayola colors.

A NATIVE OF OHIO, Aaron is the Arf's central creative figure. A traveling artist for years, he stumbled upon the power of engaging the community in artistic endeavors in Pasadena, Calif., while seeking to raise funds for a health clinic that serves the needs patients with HIV. A charity chalk drawing festival seemed like a good idea.

It was. The event brought in $20,000.

"It really made me realize the power of art and the power of people," Aaron said. "Then, when I came here, I noticed we had these wide sidewalks out front and built-in concrete panels on the building."

Dogs might be Aaron's trademark, but outside of his tail-wagging creations, his portfolio howls with political dissent.

"There are street artists, and then there are artists of the streets," said Aaron. "I'm an artist of the streets."

Humorous, at times provocative — like his porcelain caricature of Donald Rumsfeld encompassed by a serpent, complete with a background of nuclear mushroom clouds, or one of President Bush sitting on the toilet, titled "GWB: The Thinker" — Aaron's creations are an indictment of the current neo-conservative regime.

"Everyone is entitled to an opinion," Aaron said. "But I make sure this stuff is done well. That way, if someone doesn't agree with it, at least they can't say it's not good work."

Aaron gained some recognition from the Democratic Party in 1986 with "10 Seconds to Impact," a show featuring mutated dogs as a commentary on the presidential race. Drawing inspiration from artists like Barbara Krueger, Aaron revels in the reactions his work inspires.

During the last Clarendon Day celebration, he said, one woman threatened to phone the police, saying his art amounted to treason.

"It is kind of in your face," he said. "Like I said, everyone's entitled to an opinion."

THE ARF'S NEWEST SHOW is "Follow the Signs," a presentation of nine artists, many of whom work at Whole Foods grocery stores in the Washington Metro area. Store artist, according to co-curator and featured painter Matt Hand, is a position most Whole Foods stores have. The artists create colorful signs and other creative touches. The show brings their talents together.

Hand said he got involved with the Arf after his first visit. "I walked in a thought: wow, This is happening in Clarendon?" said Hand. Much of Hand's work focuses on the human form, and since returning from a trip through the American Southwest, he has taken to painting landscapes. But drawing people, he said, is a constant influence on his style.

"There's just something about the shapes that make up a person," said Hand. "I see it cropping up now in my paintings. Figures will take on human characteristics, becoming human in a way."

Nature plays its role in artist Louella's paintings, but it's color, she said, that leads her artistic spirit. And the exploration of color in the paintings she has brought to the show is both intense and imaginative.

"When I paint, I'm not building," she said. "I let the color carry me through it more than anything. When that doesn't work, I go back to real stuff like what I see in nature."

Louella came to the United States at age 13 from Hong Kong. An artist since childhood, she is a regular at the Arf, stopping by now and then to contribute a chalk drawing to the outside gallery. And it is with an almost child-like energy and heart that she approaches her creations, never hesitating to get splattered with paint or her hands caked with chalk. "I don't really drink or smoke," she said. "I'm just high on life."

For artist Anna Nazaretz, the problems and predicaments of growing up were the inspiration for her series of screen prints featured in the show.

"I try to capture memories from childhood, snapshots of emotions that we've probably all experienced," said Nazaretz.

Nazaretz, a native of Arlington, brings a character to life in her prints named Stumpy, who the audience sees dealing with childhood's ups and downs in what is almost a comic strip. In fact, Nazaretz said she is considering using the prints as illustrations for a book.

"He's kind of matter-of-fact about the things that happen to him," she said. "He's also just kind of an observer."

Nazaretz was part of last year's Art-O-Matic exhibition in Washington. Some of her prints will appear at a display in Children's Hospital July 11.

Along with the gallery, the Arf also holds art classes and workshops for anyone looking for a creative outlet. It will host a second fundraiser July 22nd, featuring the return of rock band Pure Light Seed and a later event is in the works with Johnny Cash tribute band Cold Hard Cash. The event and the museum are both free, and the suggested donation is only $10.