By David Leone
WAKE FOREST — How many licks does it take to get to the center of a Tootsie Pop?
Anyone over 30 has probably seen the TV ad that artist and advertising executive Dick Larsen created for that candy sucker.
But Larsen, who these days operates out of a studio at the Wake Forest Cotton Company, is much better known locally for his whimsical and often soul-stirring paintings of dogs and cats.
“I really get into it,” he said. “I guess it’s the smell of the paint. Once you get into it, you never give it up.”
Advertising was his job, but artistry is his calling. Larsen’s pet portraits will be featured alongside the work of dozens of other area artists for the annual tour of Artists, which returns Sept. 6-7.
The Tour, formerly called the Studio Tour, features the work of the Wake Forest Guild of Artists, including painters, photographers, craftsmen and others.
They include Mary Benejam, Beth Massey, Billy Farmer, Gayle Blackerby, Linda Love-Burrell, Sol Levine, Cyndy Wolf, Ted Jay, Maureen Seltzer, Susan Espin, Mary Margaret Steele, Sharron Parker, Bill Wallace and Jeanna Jinks, among many, many others.
Galleries in downtown Wake Forest and studios in various locations around town will be open both days from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday, Sept. 6 and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 7. Artists will be present at the galleries and studios to give demonstrations and to talk about their work.
Larsen, who works in oils, has painted a large piece featuring eight dogs and one cat for his show.
Though he also paints still lifes and figures, he’s focusing more and more on pooches and pussycats, because of the great demand he’s seen in the community for such work.
In particular, Larsen accepts commissions to paint portraits of people’s own pets. Each portrait is different and each seems to capture a bit of the animal’s personality.
“Even if you do two black labs, they’re different. They all have that little thing about them that’s different,” he said. “I love doing it and it pays the bills for sure. I’ve been busy.”
He’s been at the Cotton Company for 12 years. About three years ago he lost sight in one eye due to a rare parasite. He’s since relearned how to paint and is convinced that that process has made him a better artist.
His original studio was above the Corner Ice Cream Shop on North Main Street, which is no longer open. Larsen gets better foot traffic at the present studio and encourages people to come in and watch him work.
When they do — he often ends up taking new commissions. He’s also accepted them via the Internet.
“I send dogs everywhere — one to New Zealand,” he said.
Though dog fanciers are everywhere, Larsen doesn’t consider his work a flight of fantasy. After one woman requested portraits of her two dogs, a bull mastiff and bulldog, the following week, one died.
“The next one died a day later — it was heartbroken,” he said.
So was their owner — until she saw them memorialized in his painting.
If you travel around the community, you’ll see Larsen’s paintings in veterinary offices, and other fido- and feline- friendly locations. His works hang at the Franklin County SPCA, for instance, and he donates a portion of each sale there to the organization.
Larsen lives in Wakefield, and lived for many years in Wake Forest.
“I love Wake Forest,” he said.
For more about the annual Tour of Artists, including the artists list, a map of the galleries and examples of their work, see wakeforestguild.com.