Vocalist and ArtPrize artist Martha Cares sings the praises of adoption

Martha Cares and her dog, Poppy, at the contemporary art and sculpture gallery in Sawyer, Mich.

Martha Cares and her dog, Poppy, at the contemporary art and sculpture gallery in Sawyer, Mich.

Editor’s note: This story appears in the September/October issue of Dogs Unleashed magazine.  


Poppy is bounding about her fenced-in yard like a bunny. Her white ears flop as she chases colorful plastic rings thrown for her, like Frisbees, by owner and professional singer Martha Cares.

The Glen of Imaal Terrier – a breed that originated in County Wicklow, Ireland – stops only to pick the rings up with her mouth. She then flips each circle, letting it fall around her neck. Some of the rings have worked their way down around her belly. The 22-pound terrier bounces on spring-like feet, collecting rings on her compact body until she resembles a Slinky.

Cares watches Poppy and smiles, speaking in the tone animal devotees reserve for their pets.

“Come on Poppy,” she coos, before tossing another ring.

As Poppy navigates the grass and trees, Cares describes a few of the large stone sculptures made by her artist husband, Fritz Olsen. The fluid figures populate the garden-like area behind the Sawyer studio and gallery space they’ve established inside a former azalea nursery. Olsen and Cares restored the structure – originally built in 1939 – and converted it into a regional arts destination.

Poppy, a daily visitor to the gallery, is in her element. The July evening air is heavy with humidity and mosquitoes, but neither Poppy’s nor Cares’ spirits flag. They’re a good match and it is clear that Poppy has inspired Cares, both as an artist and as an animal lover.


Those who made the trek last year to downtown Grand Rapids for the fourth annual ArtPrize may very well be familiar with Poppy’s form. Cares used the dog as the model for her first-ever ArtPrize entry “My Rescue.” The large-scale piece consisted of five inter-locked silhouettes of a dog. As is typical of Cares’ work, it struck a chord with audiences.

Martha Cares' ArtPrize exhibit this year features cats and kittens. She blended the cats with her "My Rescue" for these creations.

Martha Cares’ ArtPrize exhibit this year features cats and kittens. She blended the cats with her “My Rescue” for these creations.

“I had no idea how well-loved the sculpture would be,” Cares says of the piece. She frequently sells smaller versions in her gallery and through online sales.

The simple steel sculptures of “My Rescue” were each painted in a primary color – red, orange, yellow, green, and blue – with no other details, save for three black dots to represent the eyes and nose. The four-foot-tall dogs – created from a sketch of Poppy and carved and cut by Olsen – were lined up in a neat row in front of the fountain at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum.

“I couldn’t have asked for nicer people to work with,” Cares says of the museum staff, including museum Deputy Director Jim Kratsas.

Cares will return to the same venue for ArtPrize 2013. This time she will present “Homeward Bound – Happily Ever Rescued!” The piece is similar in size, scope, and style to “My Rescue,” but uses larger-than-life cats in place of dogs.

The animals have changed, but the message is the same. Cares aims to start a dialogue about pet rescue and welfare in the United States. To quote her artist statement from 2012: “In America, six to eight million animals are taken in by rescue organizations and shelters each year. Saving the precious life of an animal through volunteering, adoption, or donations moves well beyond rescue of a fellow living creature, for through these generous acts of love, we too are rescued.”

Cares became familiar with the issue of animal rescue and adoption when she met Kathryn and Jack Scott through Save A Stray in St. Joseph. The couple (who now work with animals via Paws of Hope in Buchanan) had acted as Poppy’s foster parents.

“Their dedication and commitment to finding the right homes for their animals and their love and care was inspiring and wonderful,” Cares says.

Cares has teamed this year with Trudy Ender and Tammy Hagedorn with the Humane Society of West Michigan. She is working with the organization to promote animal rescue through her ArtPrize entry. She also hopes to raise funds for the animal rescue organization.

“There are some special things in the works for this,” Cares says.


Visual art is something of a new public platform for Cares, who is known professionally for her vocal talents. She appeared in more than a thousand performances of the national Broadway production of “Phantom of the Opera” and has loaned her voice to national commercial campaigns, including for McDonald’s and United Airlines. She still regularly performs in Michigan and beyond.

Martha Cares poses with one of her full-size "My Rescue" sculptures outside the gallery.

Martha Cares poses with one of her full-size “My Rescue” sculptures outside the gallery.

But even as she made a career using her voice, Cares enjoyed painting during her downtime. She even occasionally contributed her works to charitable causes: “I liked to do something quiet.”

“Art encompasses everything I do,” Cares says. “The arts enrich our lives and they can change our lives.”

Cares finds a parallel between what the arts can do for society and what an unwanted pet can do for an individual: “Rescue dogs can change our lives in a positive way.”

Certainly, Poppy has been a force of change in Cares’ life. After losing her beloved Peachy more than a decade ago – the Lhasa Apso was 16 when she passed away – Cares was reluctant to get another dog. It took meeting Poppy to help her finally get past the pain of losing Peachy.

“It took me eight years to be ready,” Cares says.

Olsen and Cares have made their Sawyer gallery a dog-friendly place where people routinely stop in just to say “hi” – both to the couple and to Poppy.

As Cares talks about art and animals, Poppy half-heartedly pursues a small flying insect that has followed her in from the yard. After a minute or two of chase, Poppy drops to the cool cement floor and relaxes into a pile of fur.

“Poppy is surrounded by art, music, and good people,” Cares says.

It’s the kind of life Cares would like to see for all of the unwanted, forgotten, and otherwise overlooked pets in the country: safe, simple, and forever.

About the author: Tricia Woolfenden recently returned to Grand Rapids after living in South Florida for four years. She writes about the environment, wildlife, music, art, and culture for a variety of publications and is researching and writing a nonfiction book about wild birds. Though she’s a devoted “cat lady,” she loves all animals and hopes to one day welcome a golden retriever into her family. Contact Tricia at twoolfenden@gmail.com.

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