TUSCOLA — Barney, the cross-dressing boxer crossbreed dog, knows what it’s like to take a walk on the wild side.
The old dog — he’s 13 — was rescued from an abusive home situation before being adopted by Tuscola’s Cindy and Kirby Pringle in 1999. The big fawn and white pooch was showered with love and women’s clothes, then photographed for a series of fun books aimed at younger audiences looking for diversion with a humorous bite.
Barney actually doesn’t wear all the women’s clothes. Cindy Pringle dresses up in most of them before Barney’s head and shoulders are cleverly attached using computer-enhanced special effects. But in some pictures with fancy headscarves, hats and even sunglasses, patient Barney allows himself to actually be adorned in the accessories for the shots.
The Pringles’ first book in their “Happy Tails” series was “Earl and Pearl on the Farm” in 2006, an ABC learning book. That was followed in 2008 by an instructional tale on the joys of finding fun outdoors called “The Call of Nature.” And now, the latest and last in the series is “The Butterfly That Would Not Fly,” about a monarch butterfly with acrophobia — fear of heights — who the cross-dressing Barney, as Pearl, has to persuade to fly with the help of her husband, Earl, played, as always, by another Pringle rescue boxer named Buster.
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Buster has since acquired doggy angel wings himself, as he died in 2010, midway through the book’s production but bequeathing enough cute shots to get the job done.
“Barney never minded cross-dressing for us, and old Buster, well, he swung both ways and was good as either male or female characters but was always Earl in the books,” explains Kirby Pringle, who writes the text and modeled the male clothes for Buster.
“When Buster died, we were really depressed for a while because he was such a part of our lives. He was like a person to us in many ways and, well, we had literally turned him into a person.”
Two other rescued boxers, Daisy and Finnegan, also are available for camera work, and the Pringles’ Dogtown Artworks studio produces charming doggy note cards and whimsical photographic art they sell at art shows and other events. They also handle dog portraiture of your favorite four-legged companion, photographed straight or custom clothed to your preference, and say work as starving dog artists can be ruff but never boring.
“We’re doing something unique,” adds Kirby Pringle, 54. “We’ve never met anyone who does the same thing exactly the way we do it.”
They met 23 years ago when Pringle, a journalist, contacted his wife-to-be for a story he was working on. She was already a talented photographer and later would gift him with birthday cards enhanced by her animal-human head swapping technique, which she pioneered even back in those predigital days of film rolls and dark room developing.
“Changing the heads around just looked so funny, and it all just kind of developed from there,” recalls Cindy Pringle, 53. “I discovered I particularly enjoyed humorous, whimsical photography.”
The books have sold thousands of copies and been bought by smitten customers as far away as Australia. Their colorful human-dog characterizations also can unleash some paws for thought, too: The new book about the altitude-challenged butterfly, for example, explains the colorful monarch’s life story and its annual migration to Mexico. The Pringles believe that, if you make something doggone interesting, readers will care about it and maybe want to encourage their own monarchs by doing such stuff as planting milkweed, the only food monarch caterpillars eat.
And without being too dogmatic about it, the authors also believe their art, any art, has value and power when it makes us stop to appreciate everyday miracles, such as a 1,500 mile flight by something as fragile as a butterfly.
“Art can do that, make you feel a certain way,” Kirby Pringle said. “We think that is a kind of priceless gift to have.”