Chagrin Falls colored pencil artist Mary Hobbs has painted thousands of pet portraits, immortalizing in each a beloved animal for a grieving family.
But a recent commission of a nine-year-old mixed breed named Toby not only helped lessen the hurt for the pet owner, but eased Ms. Hobbs’ own grieving heart as well.
“It helped both of us,” Ms. Hobbs, 86, said, sharing how the piece of art came to be.
She would come to meet pet owner Rusty Ruckel, of Chester Township, through a support group her husband attended.
After Jack, her husband of 66 years, died late last year, she continued attending the group, which is when she heard of the passing of Mr. Ruckel’s dog, which had always been at his side.
“I selfishly offered to paint Toby,” Ms. Hobbs said. “Work wasn’t coming over the holidays and it helped me concentrate and get through my sadness.”
She also knew that the dog was special. It was a therapy dog that helped Mr. Ruckel, who suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) from his service in the Vietnam War.
“When Toby died, I felt so bad that I offered to do a portrait,” Ms. Hobbs said.
That portrait is front and center in Mr. Ruckel’s trailer home, purposefully placed so that he walks by it regularly, he said.
“It’s absolutely gorgeous,” Mr. Ruckel said of the large painting, which measures 2 feet wide by 3 feet high. “It’s on an easel in the middle of the house. You can’t walk by without seeing it.”
Mr. Ruckel, 77, said that Toby, part Rottweiler and part Doberman Pinscher, went everywhere with him.
“I’ve had a lot of dogs in my life and good dogs, but never had a dog that was an old soul like Toby,” he said. “I took him everywhere I went for nine years.” He was by my side 24/7.”
“Toby calmed me down,” he added.
Mr. Ruckel, a veteran of the U.S. Army said that, in addition to his PTSD, he also suffers from Rapid Cycling Bipolar Disorder.
“If Toby would sense I was starting to get upset, he would come over to me,” Mr. Ruckel explained. “Many times when I wanted to blow my stack, I didn’t because of Toby.”
When he had to have Toby put to sleep because of severe arthritis which left him barely able to walk, Mr. Ruckel said he held it together at first, then broke down.
“I kept it together that day so as to not cause a scene,” Mr. Ruckel said, “and did what had to be done.”
He had Toby cremated and when he returned home, his wife, Patricia, could hear him in the shower sobbing uncontrollably, Mr. Ruckel recalled.
“I was crying like a baby and said, ‘I have to go get him and bring him home,’ but my wife kept saying he has already passed. I could not get it together,” he said.
“When I heard the story that he was a veteran and he needed help, and then they gave him a dog, I knew I had to paint it when it died,” Ms. Hobbs said. “I felt so bad I offered to do a portrait.”
Her painting, mainly in blue and black because Toby was black, is quite large, Ms. Hobbs said, and framed beautifully.
“It’s just Toby,” she said.
When Mr. Ruckel showed the support group the finished painting, they both cried, Ms. Hobbs said.
“This dog did a job, and everyone loved him,” Mr. Ruckel said.
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