As a geriatric nurse, Joan Cabarrus was used to treating people with medicine. However, it was through a serendipitous event that she discovered a new way she could help people: creating custom sculptures for those grieving the loss of their pet.
“Having the skill to be creative and able to help with the healing process through a tangible work of art is truly a gift,” Cabarrus tells This Dog’s Life.
The Colorado-based sculptures style is a mixture of realism and semi-caricature — meaning each detail is slavishly recreated and combines a lifelike appearance with slightly exaggerated characteristics. From the lively eyes to fur tufts and slobbery tongue, Cabarrus’ attention to detail and level of patience is not to be underestimated — the process is laborious as one can imagine. However, Cabarrus, who is a spatial thinker, thrives on figuring out the composition of the sculpture, making it functional, refining her methods, and overcoming any creative challenges.
“I want the owner to remember their pet as if they were still alive, and I also want to make them smile with these little exaggerated features that may make them somewhat comical,” she says. “These sculptures should contribute to the healing of a person who is grieving from the loss of a pet, so it should make them smile.”
When a dog parent requests that she sculpt their late pup, Cabarrus gathers photos and information regarding their dog and asks how they’d like their dog to look (e.g. mannerisms, poses, preferred colors, age, special items to incorporate with the piece). In addition to capturing the client’s preferred appearance, Cabarrus also adds a disguised urn inside the sculpture if they wish to have it included.
Using just simple sculpting tools and a few dental tools, she starts by making the armature of the sculpture with wires and foils, applies clay, details the piece, and then bakes it in the oven. Afterwards, it is painted with acrylic paints and varnish. Each canine creation can take up to a month to complete, though, she can expedite if needed, with the current pricing starts at $475. To date, she has created nearly 100 sculptures.
Cabarrus’ art creates an emotional experience not just for her clients, but for her as well.
“I feel very warm in my heart. It makes me cry,” Cabarrus says of when someone sees their sculpture for the first time. “I have not lost a pet of my own, so I do not know exactly how it feels, but being able to witness the pet owner’s joy even for a short bit is so rewarding.”
How it All Started: From Nurse to Artist
The multi-talented creative’s love for sculpting blossomed not from childhood. Nor at art class. But while working as a full-time nurse.
In February 2018, Cabarrus noticed her then-fiancé’s art supplies in the corner of his room in a case. While she had seen it before, she had never taken a second look at it. When she opened it, she found polymer clay and soon got to work. Her initial sculptures were an eel and a fish.
“My fiancé was so surprised at how I sculpted them accurately,” Cabarrus says.
As she became more experienced in sculpting and its processes, the possibilities of what she could create grew. Cabarrus’ idea to begin sculpting dogs was sparked by complete boredom and wonderment. As she sat in her kitchen thinking of something to do one day, her then-fiancé’s dog, Charlie, accompanied her in the kitchen.
It was then that she thought to try something new and sculpt the pup’s head. Cabarrus baked the sculpture and surprised her partner with it when he came home from work. He was once again impressed.
“He asked me, ‘Why don’t you make this as a business?’” Cabarrus says. “My response was, ‘Do you think I can do this?’”
The answer from him was a resounding yes.
“He gifted me a shoe box of polymer clay during Valentine’s Day and gave me his sculpting tools,” Cabarrus says. “My first customers were my friends, and I soon saw how important this craft is for helping people heal emotionally.”
She soon made it official. In August 2018, Cabarrus launched her sculpting business JFCRN Limited
Going Beyond the Studio
The completely self-taught artist is now working as a nurse part-time one day a week and devoting the other six days to her art. For Cabarrus, being an artist means freedom and being a sculptor, in particular, has empowered her.
“My life has changed not because of sculpting itself. My life has changed because I finally found what I am supposed to be doing,” she says. “My mission is to cultivate resourcefulness, creativity, courage, and time management to the world. It just so happens that art and sculpting is the vehicle for that.”
Besides doing commissions, Cabarrus is looking to support even more dog parents with DIY tools. She has launched the DoggoBake Animal Sculptures, a dog-sculpting kit for beginners. Also on her educational-commerce website, she has a host of resources — both free and paid ones.
Cabarrus frequently uploads fun, educational videos to her YouTube channel. She has a family-friendly dog sculpting series named “The Doggo Bake Show” that incorporates reality and fantasy elements. Every Friday, she shares tutorials for sculptors of all skill levels, celebrates dogs’ lives and entertains viewers.
In addition to encouraging creativity through her artwork, Cabarrus wants to help people heal emotionally. She hopes to eventually share her knowledge of sculpting to assist those experiencing depression by becoming a licensed art therapist or connecting others in need to the right resources.
“Sculpting can provide so many helpful things for people, and I can not wait to learn all those and share them with the world,” Cabarrus says.