Isa Beniston’s Muse, Cowgirl, Was Fated to Be an Icon
The founder of Gentle Thrills was a child of Tumblr who grew up to love pet portraiture and her “dusty queen” of a pup.
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When Isa Beniston started Gentle Thrills in 2015, she didn’t anticipate that the colorful, vintage-inspired internet storefront would ever have a mascot. Then, slowly but surely, Cowgirl presented herself as an undeniable muse. Beniston first met the black-and-white dog with a cheeky overbite when she was in her early 20s. At the time, Cowgirl lived in an artist’s residence with a pack of other dogs (and a few chickens).
Years later, Cowgirl serendipitously ended up back in Beniston’s life full-time when she was offered the chance to adopt the pup during the pandemic. They lived out the final years of Cowgirl’s life together, basking in the sunlight while Beniston drew and Cowgirl demanded much-deserved attention from passersby. Cowgirl died in March, lying in Beniston’s lap as the sun set. “Our arrangement was that I was the cruise director of her final chapter and I took my job VERY seriously,” Beniston wrote in Cowgirl’s eulogy, which she shared with The Wildest. “I promised her she would always be comfortable and never be alone, and that was exactly what she did for me as well.”
Needless to say, Cowgirl’s legacy lives on. Her likeness adorns many of the most celebrated products at Gentle Thrills, including a vintage-inspired sweatshirt, a “cowgirl forever” sticker, and tarot rolling papers. She inspired the Gentle Thrills pet product line, which includes the adorable “trash day” dog leash and “bloom” dog collar. She ignited Beniston with a fresh appreciation for pet portraiture, a talent she has shared with dozens of pet parents at outdoor markets and gallery expos. And, if the comment section on Beniston’s heartfelt Instagram farewell to Cowgirl is any indication, countless fans of Beniston’s work were forever touched by Cowgirl’s light.
Beniston tells The Wildest about developing her artistic style and making Gentle Thrills into the sensation it is today — all with the help of Cowgirl, the “dusty queen” who inspires her daily.
Your dog, Cowgirl, inspired a lot of your work. I’m so sorry to hear about her passing.
Dogs just — they’re everything. I had known Cowgirl since right after I graduated college. She lived in this cool artist compound, and I was dating someone who lived there and worked for this artist. The artist owned the compound, and there was this flock of dogs, chickens; it was an amazing place, tons of people lived on it. There was an art gallery and this metal shop.
Then in 2020, about six months into shutdown, I was already living and working alone and had been for years. I was really lonely and not doing well. I expressed to someone that I was looking for a dog, and they very simply were like, “Do you want Cowgirl?” I was like, “Are you joking? Yeah, obviously.” I’d already been drawing her for years without her even being my dog. I was always asking about her when I’d cross paths with the people who lived there. I brought her home, and we were very much fused for a good almost two years to the date, and then we met Scotty and Pippen at a bar — Scotty is my boyfriend and Pippen is his dog — and then we became a pack of four.
That’s a magical story. It was fate!
I knew it was precious time, and I never took it for granted. The day that I got her I was told she was eight and the next day I called her vet to see if her shots were current and they were like, “Oh, Cowgirl? Yeah, she’s eleven.” I always knew we were on a clock. I got two years and eight months. It doesn’t matter how much time you have, though. The people I know who have had dogs at different stages of their lives, it just doesn’t matter; you can have a million more years and it wouldn’t be enough time. It has been difficult adjusting, but I’m lucky that she’s so present in my art and in my life that she hasn’t been forgotten, by not just me but everybody that I know. I’m grateful for that.
Cowgirl ended up being a huge presence in your art and products. How did you first get started with Gentle Thrills?
I always wanted to be an artist; I went to art school, and I’ve always made art. I was teaching to make a living to pay rent. I was doing that for several years, and it just wasn’t really doing it for me. I loved teaching, but I think most people can agree it doesn’t pay enough. I was talking to my parents, and they were like, “You know, you’ve always made stuff, you’ve always been really crafty — why don’t you try selling it?” That was kind of what prompted me.
I think at that time I was working three or four very disparate part-time jobs. Two were teaching based, two were not teaching based. I was cleaning bathrooms in famous buildings, and then I was standing around telling people not to get too close to artwork. Initially it was like, “That would be a great passive revenue stream to have an online store where I sell products that I designed.” But it’s not passive at all. It definitely took over. Now it’s my eighth year that I’ve been running an online store, and it’s my primary source of income. This year, specifically, I’m trying to pivot into more licensing-based work. You’re kind of feeding the beast when you make products, and I’d like to stop feeding the beast.
Gentle Thrills has such a unique look. How did you develop your artistic style?
You know, I’ve always really liked color. I don’t know where that comes from. That has always been the way that I am. My mom is very, very creative and went to design school, so I grew up with a lot of art books in the house. I’ve always collected paper ephemera and been interested in vintage items. The vintage interest has inspired a lot of what I design and what I make and what I like to draw and digest visually.
I was definitely a child of Tumblr. I was a teenager in the heyday of Tumblr, and to kind of learn how to compile your aesthetic — just in terms of what inspires you that way — I think was really invaluable. It actually kind of breaks my heart that it’s not an option anymore. I know we have Instagram and Pinterest, but I think there was something really specific about that platform that I think was really fundamental, not only in me understanding what my likes and dislikes were visually, but also other people’s as well. And to understand the nuance of that, that you can all be reposting and enjoying the same images but for different reasons in different ways.
What drew you to creating pet portraits?
I think every artist at one point or another is asked to do a pet portrait, right? My background as an artist was like, “It’s not the highest form of art.” I always kind of associated it with a downfall, which is not fair or true.
Specifically when I was doing airbrushing events, I’d be asked to do pet portraits. Airbrushing is such a specific medium. It’s so good for achieving the texture of fur and hair. I found that if I was given a photo, I could sort of replicate the photo in ways I couldn’t or wasn’t interested in with drawing or painting. I liked doing them enough, but it wasn’t until I had my own dog that now they’re very special to me. They feel like a gift.
Do you remember that Hilma af Klint exhibit in the Guggenheim? There was a specific part of that show where Hilma af Klint would paint pet portraits. It’s just a way that artists have made a living forever. And I loved that they put her pet portraits in the show and took the time to talk about how it was a part of her practice. That was immensely validating to me early on, and I was like, “OK, I’m going to drop this bullsh*t narrative that it’s what you do when you haven’t made it,” because, in reality, dogs and pets and animals have always been part of our lives, so they always show up. It’s just a part of the practice like anything.
Do you have a favorite pet portrait you’ve done?
I love when a pet has a prop in the image. I’ve never done one from life; I usually ask for photos because from life it’s too many options. The ones at SFMOMA were really fun because they gave us basically a wall of submitted images, so I didn’t interface at all with the family. I didn’t get to hear anything about the pet. So, I felt a bit like a medium, like I was trying to channel the pet’s personality from what I could see in the image.
I love dogs specifically. They’re so fun and forgiving to create. There’s something about their personalities and just the range of how they can look that’s so exciting. I love being given specific nuggets of information from owners. There was one I did recently that was a Greyhound, and her owner said she loved making a lot of eye contact. That was a fun prompt because then I could pick this one where she was staring straight up out of the shirt.
How did Cowgirl end up being such a large presence in your work?
My artwork style was summed up nicely by a painting professor I had in college. He said, “You invent your own clichés.” They’re clichés, but they’re also characters, like Gary Baseman’s work — you kind of have this entourage of characters who come in and out, and Cowgirl definitely was one of them. The idea of a dog who looks like a cow who’s named Cowgirl — it was like, this is too cute not to draw. I had some stickers and prints that were inspired by her. When she moved in with me, I imagined that I would be painting my dog like David Hockney and his Dachshunds, like, I’d be really embodying her, and instead she just became this goofy cartoon character.
Drawing her happened really naturally as we spent time together. I’m very diaristic in my process; I like to draw what’s going on in life. So, she was always there in my drawings. Then, when Scotty and I started dating, Pippen was in my life, and they became this duo. Drawing her was a natural part of my life, and when she was received with equal joy by my customers and people who enjoy my work, it was logical that she’d be an extension of my practice.
She seems like she was such a special dog. Even aesthetically, she’s a perfect fit for the brand.
I remember her vet in our first call was listing the medical results of her vet visit and without missing a beat she was like, “And you know, she has that overbite, which is quite cute objectively,” and kept going. She did, and she was very expressive and had a very calm demeanor, made crazy noises — she very much was a living cartoon character. I would just look at her and laugh because she was so delightful.
She was the runtiest member of her pack. She was the last dog standing; all the others had died and passed. She was a relic of this very special place that has since been developed and doesn’t exist anymore. She really earned not only being an only child, but the right to be an icon. She thought she was the best and always got what she wanted because she deserved it. She rarely barked. If she wanted something she would just sit and look at you and, like, shake, and I just had to divine what it was.
I’m sure we have a lot more Cowgirl-inspired work to look forward to.
I’m really excited; I’ve been working with a literary agent and editor on a children’s book about her. That’s in progress right now. I’m just kind of working through the artwork. I’m really excited to share this. I was working on it last winter when Cowgirl was still around, and it was this great way to encapsulate her. I think she’ll stick around in my work in a way that makes sense. She embodies a lot of what I find inspiring: strong character, quiet presence. I mean, my whole brand is called Gentle Thrills. Fun, but not aggressive. I feel like she was very much like that as well.
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