BISSELL Blocktail Party smashes previous fundraising record

There were an estimated 300 to 400 dogs at this year's BISSELL Blocktail Party, including this happy pup. (Photo by Jennifer Waters/Grumpy Pups Pet Photography)

There were an estimated 300 to 400 dogs at this year’s BISSELL Blocktail Party, including this happy pup. (Photos by Jennifer Waters/Grumpy Pups Pet Photography)

Just approaching the beautiful grounds of Mangiamo! restaurant in East Grand Rapids on Tuesday night, there was a sense the night would be special. The weather was perfect … 80ish degrees and blue sky, and the outdoor area of the restaurant, as well as the check-in area in the parking lot, already were abuzz.

To say the 10th anniversary of the BISSELL Blocktail Party was a success is a gross understatement. This year’s event for the BISSELL Pet Foundation that provides grants to West Michigan animal advocacy organizations not only broke last year’s fundraising mark of $250,000, it obliterated it.

When the early numbers were crunched on Wednesday, the day after the party, Blocktail had raised an amazing $500,000. An estimated 900 people and 300 to 400 dogs attended the event, with a private sponsors party the previous evening raising additional funds.

“The stars aligned for us this year,” said Cathy Bissell, founder of the BISSELL Pet Foundation and creator of the BISSELL Blocktail Party. “We had the perfect storm without the storm. We knew we wanted to raise more money, but never imagined we would double funds raised from last year.  We could not have done it without the amazing support from our volunteers and most importantly our community.”

it was a family affair for BISSELL Pet Foundation founder Cathy Bissell (right), who welcomed her daughter, Alissandra Kruer (center) and mother, Mary Jane McDonald (left) to the party.

It was a family affair for BISSELL Pet Foundation founder Cathy Bissell (right), who welcomed her daughter, Alissandra Kruer (center) and mother, Mary Jane McDonald (left) to the party.

Bissell said when online ticket sales stopped, 290 had been purchased. The event drew 100 walk-up ticket sales, and the rest were included in the sponsorship packets. If you’re interested in sponsoring the event next year, and attending the private sponsorship event, check out the Blocktail website for information.

Because it was the 10th anniversary of the event, Bissell opted to take a risk and add a private sponsorship event, including a concert by Kenny Loggins and his new band, Blue Sky Riders, the night before Blocktail. That event was a huge success as well, and something Bissell plans to incorporate into future Blocktails.

“We thought we might lose money on that part but we knew we had to so something special for the 10th anniversary, and we ended up making money,” Bissell said.

A live auction at the private event generated $60,000, and Loggins and his band played well beyond the hour and 15 minutes required in the contract. Bissell said she spent a year trying to find the right sound for the event, and fell in love with the band’s CD (the only one currently available). The name of the CD — “Finally Home” — was a sure sign Bissell had found the right band to play the event. The BISSELL Pet Foundation’s motto is “Until every pet has a home.”

“I worked all year to find the right sound, and Kenny Loggins loves animals,” Bissell said. “His new band has an amazing female vocalist, Georgia Middleman, and she and her husband, Gary Burr, are songwriters. … I started listening to their sound and I loved it. By the time I finished listening to the disk I was waking up and singing their songs and saying to myself, ‘They’re good. They’re really good.’ We decided to book them, and they were fantastic.

“When I talked to Shannon Reincke and Heather Garbaty, (committee co-chairs for Blocktail), they listened to the CD and came back with the same thought. And they loved the fact it was ‘Finally Home,’ because that’s our mission.”

Bissell said the band played for two hours, something Loggins himself said was unprecedented.

“They were just having fun watching people dance and kept playing,” Bissell said.

The lead-up to the Blocktail Party was a hit and the main event itself was spectacular. In addition to the cocktails for people and “yappitzers” for the four-legged guests, several local food vendors were on hand, offering guests a variety (yes, including vegan) of selections, all included in the price of a ticket. Bissell said by the time it was said and done, the vendors ran out of food — and that’s a good thing.

“It’s great for them because they don’t want to have to pack up leftover food, and it just shows the people loved their food,” Bissell said.

Chris LaPorte, grand prize winner at ArtPrize 2010, was on hand to draw caricatures of guests' dogs.

Chris LaPorte, grand prize winner at ArtPrize 2010, was on hand to sketch caricatures of party-goers’ canine family members.

Also on hand for the event was ArtPrize winning artist Chris LaPorte, he of the famed “Cavalry, American Officers, 1921” mural that won the grand prize at the 2010 event. LaPorte offered himself for a different type of work … he drew caricatures of guests’ dogs on site.

“For him to come and do caricatures, how cool is that?” Bissell asked. “It was his suggestion. And he offered a ‘Cavalry’ print that we auctioned off the night before at the live auction.”

As Blocktail continues to grow in popularity, the atmosphere at Mangiamo! remains fun and relaxed for people and their pets. With so many dogs on hand, that’s not easy to pull off.

“I think people are pretty careful,” Bissell said. “If their dogs aren’t going to mingle in a crowd, they don’t bring them. If they know if they have a dog that likes people, that’s how they play it out. Why stress out your dog?

“We haven’t had any issues, and you never know, because dogs on leashes can be more aggressive in that situation. But if you see a dog and yours doesn’t like it, you go to a different area. Thank god Mangiamo! is so big and beautiful.”

The best part of Blocktail is what it does for West Michigan pets in need. Grants from the event help organizations like C-SNIP, a low-cost spay and neuter services for low-income families, to animal rescue organizations large and small.

“This event has been part of our community for 10 years and we hope we can show a significant reduction in the number of pets in need of homes in the next 10 years,” said Blocktail co-chair Garbaty. “Everyone who attended the party or supported our cause came through to make a difference for pets. That’s why this party is so special.”



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

Take time to consider the message of ArtPrize entry ‘Hope Dog’

If you live in West Michigan, you’re probably aware that the wildly popular ArtPrize gets under way next week, from Sept. 18 to Oct. 6.

The international art competition, featuring installations all over downtown Grand Rapids, is free and open to the public. In fact, the public is invited to participate by voting for their favorite pieces, and the top prize is $200,000. For all the information you’ll need on visiting the annual event, including a search function to find entries by artist name, subject matter or location, be sure to check out the ArtPrize website.

An up-close look at Hope Dog reveals it's made of thousands of photographs of dogs.

An up-close look at Hope Dog reveals it’s made of thousands of photographs of shelter dogs.

I ran into one entry this morning as I was delivering copies of Dogs Unleashed magazine, a publication of Pet Supplies Plus. I stopped in to the Riverview Center, an office building at Sixth and Front downtown, to distribute magazines to Tommy FitzGerald‘s restaurant, Cafe Stella.

The restaurant is located inside Riverview Center, and just outside the cafe is an ArtPrize entry called Hope Dog. (Yes, it’s already installed, but you can’t vote yet). I snapped a few photos of the piece, a sort of papier mache-like dog sculpture made up of a collage of black and white dog photos. It has faux fur for the ears and tails, and big brown eyes.

The statement from artist Mercedes Keller accompanies Hope Dog.

The statement from artist Mercedes Keller accompanies Hope Dog.

I also snapped a quick photo of the artist’s statement, figuring I’d take time to read it when I got home (yes, I was in a rush, as usual). I did read it when I got home, and it nearly brought me to tears.

While it may not win the grand prize, I applaud artist Mercedes Keller for her work and especially for her statement. I hope those visiting take the time to read it and feel the same emotions I did. At the very least, I hope all those viewing Hope Dog take time to think about the thousands of shelter pets at the same crossroads.

Hope dog 2

Hope Dog is roughly the size of a medium-sized dog.

Here’s the statement that accompanies Hope Dog:

I bark my greeting as I hear the familiar steps on the concrete floor. The man stops at my kennel and my tail wags in anticipation as he walks me down the rows of my comrades. I bark my goodbyes, feeling a little sad for those I’ve left behind. As I walk I dream of a life with a new home where I can run and smell all the old familiar smells and feel the love of a human again. A tinge of fear lingers as we approach the two doors. To the right, to the right, I plead silently. I remember the cries of anguish from the left door that came creeping out from beneath its darkened chambers. My feet buckle as I stare up, my eyes pleading to the man who now holds my future in his hands. We reach the crossroads …

Only we can write the end to stories like these, with passion, with knowledge, with HOPE.

Mercedes Keller


Mary Ullmer is editor of Dogs Unleashed, a lifestyle magazine for dog lovers. Contact her at To subscribe to Dogs Unleashed, visit, and be sure to “like” Dogs Unleashed Magazine on Facebook.

West Michigan happenings: Humane society up for ‘Grand’ prize via ArtPrize

ArtPrize isn’t the only thing going on in West Michigan these days, but there’s no question it’s the biggest event in town. Aside from the animal-related art (there are some cool exhibits for animal lovers to check out), one area animal advocacy group, the Humane Society of West Michigan, has its paws in the prize as well.

HSWM was selected as one of three non-profit organizations (Kids’ Food Basket and Friends of Grand Rapids Parks are the others) competing for proceeds netted from a $25,000 necklace, “The Grand,” entered as an ArtPrize exhibit.

The non-profit receiving the most online votes will receive 80 percent of the proceeds from the eBay auction of the necklace. The other two organizations will split the other 20 percent.

So far, HSWM is off to a spectacular start with 57 percent of the vote! To vote for HSWM or one of the other non-profits, go to and click … yes, it’s that easy! You can vote once per day until Oct. 8, so tell your friends.

For those who want to see the necklace in person, it’s on display at ArtPrize venue Craft Revival. Photos of the necklace, which include icons of the city of Grand Rapids, also accompany a story on

There are a few other events happening around west Michigan, so be sure to check them out, too.


Harborfront Dog Wash: From 1 to 4 p.m. at the Harborfront Hospital for Animals parking lot, 807 W. Savidge, Spring Lake. In the event of inclement weather, the dog wash will move indoors! Also includes a bake sale. A suggested $10 donation will benefit Love Inc. and HHFA friends Jim and Pam Koop and Brenda Blahnik. All dogs get a bandana and a treat once they ‘re spiffed up!


The Dushanes benefit concert: Next Friday, the popular local alternative country band is putting on a show to benefit the Bellwether Harbor animal shelter and training facility in Fremont. The event is from 5:30 to 10 p.m. at Bellwether, 7645 West 48th St. in Fremont. Tickets are $35 in advance or $40 at the gate. Food provided by Smokin’ Good Time BBQ. For tickets, call 231-924-9230. Please note Bellwether’s hours on their website,


ASPCA/Rachael Ray $100K Challenge: Kent County Animal Shelter director Carly Luttmann reported a problem with their drive to “save” 300 more animals during the three-month Challenge than last year: KCAS keeps running out of adoptable kittens! It’s a great problem to have. Luttmann’s organization has adopted out 181 dogs and cats so far in the Challenge, which began Aug. 1 and runs through Oct. 31. That’s a 235 percent increase over the same period last year. They’ve “saved” a total of 377, including animals from KCAS transported to other facilities and adopted out as well as found animals returned to their owners via animal control officers. To check their progress and see pictures of all of the pets who found forever homes through the event, go to the official site, or visit the IC Pawz Facebook page. Please note that IC Pawz is the official site of KCAS on Facebook. A Kent County Animal Shelter page has been created but is not part of the organization.

ArtPrize: There are a few exhibits that feature animals, including one I recently wrote about, Kent Ambler’s Running Dogs. Another exhibit worth checking out is Aimee Brumleve’s “Steps Toward Independence.” Brumleve used puppies from Paws with a Cause, the national organization headquartered here in Michigan that trains assistance dogs nationally for people with disabilities, to create the painting. Brumleve is the national breeding coordinator for PAWS, which encourages independence for people with disabilities by providing a lifetime of support with PAWS dogs.


Dog lovers, take note: “Running Dogs” in the running for ArtPrize

Kent Ambler has been running with dogs most of his life. Beginning Sept. 19, he’s hoping the hundreds of thousands of ArtPrize visitors will do the same.

Ambler, a native of northwest Indiana now living in Greenville, S.C., will be displaying his “Running Dogs” exhibit at DeVos Place Convention Center in this year’s ArtPrize, which runs from Sept. 19-Oct. 7.

Running Dogs features 100 dogs painted on wood panels. The dogs, Ambler said, are an interpretation of those he and his wife, Peggy, have owned throughout the years, as well as dogs he has sketched while visiting friends, relatives and animal shelters.

“I’ve had dogs since I was born,” Ambler said in a phone interview. “These are an amalgamation of all the different dogs I’ve had, or friends dogs and whatnot. They’re based on a boxy-looking Shar Pei mix. I made templates sketched out from old drawings and I use the basic shapes of dogs.

“When I paint them, it’s more intuitive. I don’t know when I start how it will look when I’m finished. I just start painting the cutout panels I’ve made… it’s not based solely on dog XYZ, it’s an intuitive approach.”

Each dog panel — Ambler uses 15 different templates of dogs he has sketched over the years before painting — is about 30 inches wide by 18 inches high. His exhibition space is 7 feet high by 60 feet long. Each dog will “float” and inch or so off the wall of a corridor at DeVos. Ambler installed the piece on Sept. 4 and will be returning for the private ArtPrize Artist  party on Sept. 16.

He’s hoping he has to return Oct. 5, when the Top Ten vote-getters are announced. Should Ambler win the grand prize of $200,000, he plans to help out — what else? — dogs. Aside from expanding his current studio, Ambler said he will donate $10,000 to the ASPCA and also will help out a few dog rescues in the Greenville area with cash donations.

With 1,517 artists competing at 162 venues this year, Ambler said he’s optimistic about his location.

“I combed through all the venues and found about 12 that would work for my exhibit,” Ambler said. “So, I made my profile and connected with the venues. Of the 12 I selected, six declined, so then it was sort of a waiting game. Finally, I heard from DeVos Place Convention Center and it worked out.”

Last year’s ArtPrize winner, Mia Tavonatti‘s mosaic “Crucifixion,” had DeVos Place as its venue.

“It’s a huge space, and there’s a good thing about being in a space like that,” Ambler said. “It has multiple artists. There are 54 artists in there, and people tend to go to venues where they can see a bunch of things rather than a restaurant where there might be one thing there and they had to walk eight blocks to see it.

“Hopefully, it works to my benefit.”

Ambler, whose work is featured in galleries in Asheville, N.C.; Charleston, S.C.;, Tuscaloosa, Ala. and Vicksburg, Miss., among others in the southwest, also works with woodcuts, block constructs and sculpture, He said he usually attends festivals and shows within an 8-hour radius of his home, but once a year goes outside those boundaries.

Last year, he did Madison, Wis. Next year, he’s hoping to make it to a festival in Kalamazoo in June. This year, it’s ArtPrize.

Ambler has recruited one of his three dogs, Grubby, to help him get out the vote. Grubby has his own Twitter account (@GrubbytheDog) and has taken over Ambler’s Facebook page. A postcard Ambler had made for the event features a photo of Grubby telling people about Running Dogs, including the code to vote via text for it, and about ArtPrize in general.

Grubby, a mixed breed who is part Shar Pei by the looks of him, is 9. He was adopted from a shelter, as were his “sister” dogs, Spooky and Pixie. Spooky, a 4-year-old mix, likely also is part Shar Pei. Pixie, who is 2, is anybody’s guess.

“She’s about 30 pounds, but it’s a dense 30 pounds, like with a Jack Russell,” Ambler said. “But she’s black and brown, and she’s got that curly tail, so it’s hard to say what she is.”


Grubby, with artist Kent Ambler’s wife, Peggy (left), Pixie (center) and Spooky.