Pet Projects: Animals and Art Align in Debut Exhibition of Handsome Family Lyricist Rennie Sparks

Angie Fur Pants by Rennie Sparks

Rennie SparksSeptember is a big month for The Handsome Family. The musical husband-and-wife team also known as Brett and Rennie Sparks is releasing its 10th album, “Unseen,” nationwide and, in Chicago, they’re conducting a songwriting workshop and performing at the Old Town School of Folk Music on Sept. 18. If that’s not enough, the female half of the band is exhibiting her paintings of sea creatures in “Underwater Vines” thanks to Aron Packer Projects.

With so much going on, I had to go to the source to see what makes Ms. Sparks tick, and paint.


Janet Arvia: Underwater Vines is your first official exhibition in a gallery, yet youve been selling portraits online for some time. What is your process when patrons commission you to paint their pets?

Rennie Sparks: I usually ask what heaven would look like for your pet and go from there. I try to incorporate all the good things the pet might want around them. All the talismans of good life. I had a dream once about one of my dead cats, and I was chasing after him in this dark tunnel full of cobwebs and spiders. It was awful, and I kept screaming, “wait, wait,” and finally my dead cat turned around and said, “this is a place for cats,” and I woke up realizing that cat heaven would be a lot different than human heaven.

How does painting work in tandem with writing lyrics?

In both painting and writing, I try to conjure images of things that I feel haven’t been conjured up. Lost spells. The graceful beauty of frogs, octopuses, ants, bees.

What influences your visual work?

Probably I’m mostly influenced by my favorite dog food cans as well as seeing photos of beautiful creatures in the wild. There are manta rays that have coats that look like starlight so that you can’t see them from above. That’s about the most beautiful thing I can imagine.

In addition to paintings of octopuses, frogs and snakes (oh my), Underwater Vinesincludes your collections of pet food cans and cat whiskers.

Dog and cat food cans are idealized, heavenly versions of cats and dogs. Joyful beyond joyful and the way I try to paint my subjects. Cat whiskers just amaze me. They are crazy magic wands that reveal the darkness to a cat. Like a set of eyes that are tentacles. I want them to work for me. Haven’t succeeded yet. One day.

For now, the artistic magic of Rennie Sparks can be seen and heard from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m. on Sept. 20  in “Underwater Vines” at 2416 W. North Ave., where she and Brett will play a few songs to kick off the show. For details, visit www.aronpackerprojects.com. For information on The Handsome Family’s performance at Gary and Laura Maurer Concert Hall on Sept. 18, call 773-728-6000. To learn more about the band and Rennie’s art, visit www.handsomefamily.com and www.handsomefamily.com/paintingintro.html.

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Ms. Arvia is a freelance writer, former filmmaker, artist and Janet-of-all-trades who is pleased to contribute to our magazine since she’s always been Rebellious.

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