As a world-renowned sculptor, Susan Bahary brings to life service animals in her monuments, but it was her start in showing Afghan Hounds in the 1970s that inspired her to incorporate the veracious details of her subjects.
“I began dabbling with sculpting at age 16,” says Bahary, recipient of the Kennel Club of Philadelphia’s prestigious 2022 Dogs’ Best Friend Award. The award was created to inspire and motivate people to contribute to animal welfare in their community, as well as protect dogs whose service and companionship are a critical and enriching part of American life.
On November 19, Bahary will be presented with the honor during the National Dog Show ceremonies at The Greater Philadelphia Expo Center in Oaks, Pennsylvania. The show will be televised at 12 p.m. in all time zones on Thanksgiving Day on NBC.
Wayne Ferguson, president of the Kennel Club of Philadelphia, says, “The award has celebrated many dynamic people and organizations over the years and Susan Bahary is a great fit for the purpose of the honor, which is to recognize those who inspire others to contribute to animal welfare in their community.”
Her commitment to specifics and reverence for teamwork in the ring, as well as artistic experience, have served her well. “I began dabbling with sculpting at age sixteen,” says Bahary. And it didn’t hurt that she received positive feedback from three luminaries in dog sports: Afghan breeder/ceramics sculptor Kay Finch, judge Irene Bivin, and noted professional handler and judge Bob Forsyth. The ultimate kudos came from Bivin, who featured her Doberman Pinscher head study sculpture in judges’ seminars to showcase the perfection of the breed’s head. “That’s as good a compliment as it gets,” she smiles.
From the Show Ring to the Studio
Bahary is a show veteran, having been successful with 25 champion Afghans in the ’70s. But she began shifting gears a bit in the 1980s to sculptures honoring the human-animal bond and service animals, some of which are mixed breeds. “Participating in the dog world taught me the finer points of the sport, like the priority of the standard, expression, and movement, along with perseverance and patience. I attempt to incorporate those into every piece of work I sculpt,” she says.
As an owner-handler, she became tightly connected to her canine partners. She explains, “The importance of being in sync with my dogs became ingrained in my personality and sculptures.” As a result, no matter the subject’s size or scope, detailed accuracy remains Bahary’s chief priority. “I owe that to the general public and the owner,” she emphasizes. “My credibility is on the line with each sculpture.” The native New Yorker moved to the Bay Area in 1989. Since then, she has focused on sculpting full-time, with projects spanning the globe, from Australia and New Zealand to France and the United States.
Books, photos, illustrations, and first-hand meetings with living dogs and their owners are key research tools. “It’s like putting a puzzle together,” Bahary adds. Before moving forward to the production stage, a detailed illustration is created for final approval by a committee or an owner, depending on the subject.
Pieces can take anywhere from weeks to months to complete, exacting hours of mental, emotional, and physical energy. “Each becomes part of my fabric in the process,” she says.
Memorials and Monuments
In 1994, Bahary created the United States’ first official and iconic war memorial, “Always Faithful,” unveiled at the Pentagon and installed at the Marine Corps War Dog Cemetery at the U.S. Naval Base in Guam.
- “The Pledge,” monument at the Military Women’s Memorial at the gateway to the Arlington National Cemetery. This is the first monument in the nation’s capital to honor all women in the U.S. military.
- “Stubby Salutes,” honoring the country’s first and most famed service dog, at Veteran’s Memorial Park in Middletown, Connecticut. A second casting is featured at the AKC Museum of the Dog in New York City.
- “Sully,” a life-size bronze of President George H.W. Bush’s service dog for the permanent collection of his Presidential Library and Museum.
- “The Pledge,” featuring a female soldier connecting with her service dog as they ready themselves for an upcoming mission. It resides in the permanent collection of the Women’s Memorial in Arlington Cemetery.
- “Service and Sacrifice,” a bronze monument of John Douangdara (the fallen lead dog handler of SEAL Team 6) and his canine partner, Bart, at the United States Navy Memorial in Washington, D.C.
A Place to Remember
Right now, her chief focus is to build a National Service Animals Memorial in Washington, D.C., or its environs. It received Congressional approval in September and awaits a Senate vote. With her award, Bahary will receive a $5,000 donation, which will go towards this cause. Approximately $10 million must be raised to create it, and it will take an estimated three to five years to build. Bahary wants to make this a “must-see destination,” envisioning a park-like space with pathways guiding visitors to bronze service animal sculptures.
“I love history and I feel like a historian through my art,” she shares.” There were times when something needed to be done and I felt I was the person to do it. Call it self-confidence or commitment—the subjects were deserving and needed a permanent place for viewing.”
“At the same time, it is humbling to be selected for these projects,” she says. “Each was a big responsibility, and I was honored to be chosen to capture the complexity and the heart and soul of the subject. Equally important, I want viewers to recognize the contributions of these animals and take that home.”