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When Torri Stewart’s husband tried to take a photo of Sid Vicious he got bitten. 

Sid Vicious was my dog. Torri is a pet portraitist.  Under the moniker Four Legged Art, she draws character-filled portraits of beloved furry family members, using coloured pencils and watercolours.

Throughout her life Torri has drawn portraits of the pets of friends and family members — often as memorials, after the animals had died — and on seeing how much pleasure people got from her art she wanted to do more. It wasn’t until she came to Gisborne, however, that she started to make a business from her talent. 

“What amazes me about Gisborne is that when people come here, instead of just doing what they do, they start exploring what they could do. I reckon it’s tapped into that entrepreneurial spirit people have,”

Torri and her young family moved to Gisborne two years ago after her husband, a food technologist, began working for Leaderbrand.

“It’s so beautiful here, it makes you stop and appreciate where you are and that makes you reflect on what you’re doing. That’s it for me anyway, the beaches definitely did that for me.”

Originally from Scotland, Torri has always been fascinated by art. She wanted to study art at high school but the timing clashed with a science class she had chosen. At university she did art history papers as well as English literature, and the love of art stayed with her.

Art activities with her children made her think about taking it more seriously.

“I was sitting with the kids, doing a little arts session, and after a number of these sessions, where I discovered I was still sitting at the table drawing after the kids had moved onto another activity, I realised that I was really, really enjoying it, so I started thinking–  why can’t I do more art?”

Creation of art has positive outcomes for mental wellbeing and mindfulness, and this was also something Torri wanted to explore. 

“So I drew a duck, I drew a horse, just to see if I could. The portraits I’d done in the past had all been black and white pencil, so I thought: I’m going to try doing them in coloured pencil. It was lovely to discover I could do it.”

After this initial success Torri contacted some friends and asked if they’d be interested in commissioning portraits as Christmas presents. That was the beginning, and it took off from there.

“I did say if you don’t like it you don’t have to pay for it. But they turned out really well.”

And so, Four Legged Art was born.

Now that she’s established her process, Torri says that working from photos, she can take a so-so image and make it into something special.

“The best portraits I do are from really good photos, but if you give me a very blurred picture I can create a portrait from that, just without the fine detail. Often it’s those portraits that can trigger an emotional reaction more in the owners because all they’ve had to look at is a blurry photo. When I isolate the animal from that photo and do a picture of them, the mind kind of fills in the gaps. It makes a lot of people cry. There’s not many jobs that measure success in tears.”

It’s particularly emotional when the pet has a sad story, as with rescue dogs. Torri says this is part of why she was determined to give something back. 

“It’s a measure of how much people love these animals, when they want to spend money on a portrait, and my thinking was: there are all these horses and dogs and cats and rabbits that don’t have that level of love, so it would be nice to take some of that and invest it back across,”

As well as donating some of her income to the SPCA, Torri has worked with Wellington Rabbit Rescue. She’s drawn a few of their rabbits and also designed Super Binky Bunny, a character used on promotional and fund-raising material.

Torri’s plans for the future involve more fine art projects based around local beaches.

“I’m fascinated by objects on the beach and the way you can walk on the beach and look down and it’s like someone has created this perfect composition. I’d love to get into drawing those.”

She says her experiences in Gisborne, and the people she’s met here, made her realise that’s what’s possible is what you decide to do.

“That made me question what I want to do and I realised I get a lot of pleasure from art.”

This writer can vouch for the pleasure her art gives to others. Her portrait of Sid Vicious, R.I.P., hangs in a prime position in my house. 

Torri’s husband has made a full recovery.

To order your own unique artwork contact Torri on her facebook page

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