What do you do when your beloved companion dies, and you just can’t find the right way to keep her memory with you? If you’re Julie Bender of Loveland, Colo., you take up a new art form to customize your dog’s urn, become obsessed by it, and eventually decide to leave your career to be a full-time artist. You also get a new puppy, turn to conformation out of desperation, and find out what your breed is all about.

Zoë, the dog who launched Julie Bender’s art career.

Yes, it took about a decade, but that’s exactly what Bender did this summer. She gave up her job as a project manager and moved from Atlanta to Colorado. It didn’t take her any time at all, though, to add a new dog to her life.

As a child in St. Louis, Julie’s family always had dogs, “usually Miniature Poodles,” she says. “We adored the dogs.” Her family didn’t breed them, but her mom did groom other people’s dogs “on the side.” So, those little curly-coated dogs were all she really knew well until she married after college. She and her new husband got a Labrador Retriever.

“When I got divorced, he kept the Lab, and I just wanted to get another dog. I knew that I wanted to get a smaller dog in case it got sick or injured. I wanted to be able to pick it up myself.”

Julie and Zoe were best buddies for nine years.

After much research, she decided on a Vizsla because of its size, short hair and athleticism. She got Zoë in 1993 from a breeder in Aniston, Ala. “I just wanted a companion, to be able to go to parks, meet new people. I just needed somebody in my life to feel whole. Zoë and I hooked up, and we became best friends. She was everything to me. She was my soul mate.”

Just one problem with that: When your soul mate dies, it’s much worse than when your pet dies.

Saying ‘Goodbye’
After nine years of being buddies, best friends, Julie had to say goodbye to Zoë.

Julie’s first foray into pyrography, or artistic wood burning, was to commemorate her love for Zoë.

“I was looking for an urn for her ashes. I was completely at a loss. I was at a place looking at all the urns. Nothing felt good enough,” she says. After visiting a few times, “It finally just came to me: What if I bought a wood burner and maybe burned her portrait on the side?” So, she settled on a cherry-wood urn and instructed that Zoë’s name and dates be inscribed to leave room for the portrait. “I went over to a hobby shop and got a cheap wood burner, kind of with the idea that if I screw this up, I’ll have to forgive myself.”

Although she knows she could do a much better job of it today, she didn’t mess it up at all.

As a matter of fact, the urn is in her studio as she speaks on the telephone for this interview. “I’m actually looking at it right now,” she says. “She’s on a side table with some plants and a little lamp.”

The artist’s development is evident in this representation of a Golden Retriever, Pick, burned onto maple by Julie Bender.

Bender was a fine-art major in college, but fell into graphic design, then project management after college so didn’t use her education as an artist much – until Zoë’s death.

“I literally have not put it down since,” she says. “I fell in love.” She started researching other wood-burning tools and “playing around with it. To this day, I have not been able to stop doing it.”

Vizsla Number Two
With Zoë’s memory safe in and on that urn, Julie was ready to get another Vizsla, and, oh, what a Vizsla she got. “All I wanted was a dog,” Julie says. If only.

Julie got into conformation as a way to get her second Vizsla, ‘Raisin,’ under control and to bond with the “crazy” puppy.

She had her pick of the girls in the litter of an Atlanta breeder friend. “I finally chose ‘Raisin’ because at 5 or 6 weeks she unlocked her crate from the inside. “I thought, ‘That’s my dog.’” Julie chuckles now, recalling her innocence. “Once I took her home, she’d send me to bed in tears. She was just a defiant little bitch. She was just uncontrollable. She was a constant blur. She wouldn’t listen. Here I was on the heels of losing Zoë, and Raisin was just a little shit. She didn’t know how to hold still. She was just all over the place, crazy.”

Bender called the breeder: “Nancy, I just don’t think I can keep her.” Julie says she was “this close, next day kind of close,” to returning her.

Nancy Edmunds suggested getting the young hellion into a ring. “She would have to get to the point where she could settle down, listen and behave,” Bender recalls Nancy saying. “I took her over, and Nancy got her to stack. When I finally got in the ring with her, it was kind of fun.”

So, Nancy, Julie and Raisin hit the road. “I learned how to show her. Nancy taught me everything.” And Raisin learned how to stack. “Soon enough, she was finally getting it.

“We learned how to respect each other. It was going to be teamwork” that would bond them. Sure enough, it did.

“I fell in love with her,” Julie says.

Ten-year-old Raisin still loves to get out in the field for some hunting fun.

Today, she recognizes that now 10-year-old Ch. Vizcaya’s Raisin Caine, MH, CGC, VC (versatile certificate), “is the one who singlehandedly taught me what it is to be a Vizsla. I had no idea what I had.”

Bender jumped from conformation to field trials after getting involved with the Vizsla Club of Metro Atlanta. The club hosted a weekend seminar on hunting, and a friend encouraged her to go. “I found out from Raisin, who was yanking and jerking and pulling me to get out into the field,” that she “just needed to find birds. She caught that scent in her nose, and from that point on, I didn’t recognize her. It was a beautiful thing.”

Until that moment, Julie hadn’t known what Raisin needed. “All I had to do was pay attention and listen.”

A German Shorthaired Pointer makes a “Special Delivery” in this artwork by Julie Bender.

Raisin passed junior and senior hunt tests, then went on to her master hunter title, all owner-handled.

“To this day, she has a ton of energy. She just doesn’t stop,” Julie says.

When either of her dogs points, as Raisin does here, Julie has her camera ready to capture it.

Art on the Side
Along with her full-time job and all the showing and trialing, Julie continued to hone her art skills. In addition to dogs, she undertook portraits of horses, and images of wildlife and farm animals, capturing them first with her camera, then transferring the likenesses to her wood of choice – maple – with her wood-burning tool, in an art form called “pyrography.”

Although Julie got her start “burning” dogs, like this Vizsla, she also does horses, wildlife and farm animals.

She prefers maple, she says, “because it’s so hard and it has a very light, creamy surface.” After she sands the wood, she says, “The heat from the tool kind of glides across it. It almost feels like I’m oil painting. Because it’s such a hard wood, it burns very slowly so I have more control over it. I can burn more meticulously. I can be more precise.”

Julie gets her wood, cut to size, from a lumberyard in Wisconsin. Then she sands it and pencils in the image, based on her photograph. “It might change a little as I burn. I just burn away.” A spray lacquer protects the wood. A frame and hanging hardware finish up each project.

As she continued to create in her spare time, word of her artistry spread.

“I’m very lucky,” she says. “I have collectors all over the world now. I’m in galleries, I do invitational shows, I get juried into important shows. But it’s only because I worked really, really hard at it. I’ve never been so passionate or so driven about anything in my life. I just can’t put it down.”

‘Alex’ is following in her grandmother’s footsteps when it comes to conformation and hunt tests.

As if that weren’t enough, two years ago she added Raisin’s granddaughter to her family. Razn A Good Point, ‘Alex,’ is five points and a major away from her conformation championship and has puppy points toward her field championship. “I hope she’ll be a dual champion someday,” Julie says. “She’s ridiculously cute. She’s so funny. She looks at me with those great big eyes, and I just melt.”

A Leap of Faith
Bender chose Colorado for her new home partially because she wanted to find different habitats and wildlife for her work.

“Now my art is my full-time job,” she says. “It’s kind of a leap of faith.”

Julie and Alex pose after a field trial in 2011.

Julie no longer has to worry about “burning into the night.” And she’s experimenting more than ever.

“Lately I’ve been burning on paper. It’s very, very different. I’m working on a 300-pound water color paper with a little texture to it. I’ve been trying to get away from really precise detail and do something a little more impressionistic. It yields a whole different kind of look.”

She’s also adding color to her work. “I’m injecting a little bit of color on this paper. My world opened up to new possibilities” because using paper lets her add watercolors and India ink.

“It’s fun, I tell you. I have a fun life.”

Even after all this time, Julie gives all the credit to Zoë.

“If it weren’t for Zoë, I wouldn’t be doing this medium. I wouldn’t be doing this art,” she says. “I am constantly inspired by her. She’s with me constantly every single day.

“I consider myself very, very fortunate to do something I love this much. I never thought I could be this happy.”

You can see more of Julie Bender’s work at www.juliebender.com.