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Hackles Up: The Misunderstanding of Zeus

I began Zeus back in December of 2022. It was a concept that evolved from a single moment and misunderstanding at a dog park. Zeus is known for his anxiety and the minute we walk out the door, he's in fight or flight mode. Although he's not a fighter, he faces the world with tense muscles, piercing gazes, and hackles raised. No amount of training has helped him nor has he calmed with any treats, meds, or rewards. He's made this way and I've learned to accept it and help his coping mechanisms with plenty of walks in the early mornings and afternoons, detouring the schedules of other pups. The story of hackles up, and the misunderstanding of Zeus continues below.

Zeus is a reactive dog. He has boundaries. Lots of boundaries. And he lets you know. Every so often, I'll take him and Lotus to the dog park. It never fails, he goes full throttle, anxiety at 110%, getting in the biggest dog's face. He thinks he's an alpha, but always gets put in his place. He's never been in a fight, but he sure likes to act like it. I'm not one of those lucky parents who can sit on a bench and have peace. I'm always on alert explaining to parents that he's really a nice dog, just misunderstood. One day, at the park, he was running around, marking his territory, cruising around with the hair on his back raised from anxiety, sniffing, marking his territory even more. As often, the parents notice the razor back and suddenly, one of the moms started pointing at him and yelling "Hackles Up, Hackles Up!" trying to get her pup away and making sure every parent within the park knew there was a bad dog in the vicinity. At first, I was like, why is she pointing at my dog and yelling those words? I'm naive, and this was the first time I'd heard that expression (I know, I'm a little slow), so I didn't know what to think. I eventually put two and two together and realized she was talking about Zeus and his razor back. I explained to her as politely as I could that it's his nature and he's extremely anxious and has never been in a fight. She did calm down, but it was too late, and he was a marked boy, so I gathered them up and took them for a walk away from the excitement.

It was on this day that I realized how misunderstood his character is. It was also on this day that I started to really relate to his anxiety, something that cripples humans and animals alike. No matter how much comfort I can have, I'm still going to have it the minute I walk outside, get into a crowd, or in front of people, or talking one on one with someone. It's not a fight or flight situation, as black and white as it is for Zeus. Mine is definitely flight if I could.

When it comes to art, I was always reluctant to show it. My confidence level with my art is definitely full of anxiety. I only recently have started to gain confidence and accept my abilities and creativity. I started to gain that confidence when I started showing my work and how it's been accepted. Not everyone likes it, but the ones who do, really like it, and that means the world to me. I don't make art to gain support, I make art because it is who I am and there's not much else I'd rather be doing. The more I produce, the more confidence I gain, and the less anxiety I have, and along the journey, I gain some kindred friendships and lovers of the arts.

The portrait of Zeus was one of these works I decided to document along the way, mostly on Instagram, but with posts on Facebook as well. I wanted to prove to myself, and the world, that I could start with a vision, a goal, and complete it with either failure or a beautiful personal piece of art. I was determined to make a beautiful personal piece of art. This was a test of my anxiety, just throwing myself out there. It's an amazing feeling. For months I displayed to the world my abilities. Is he my best work of art? Not at all. But I'm really proud of him and what I was able to begin and end, and I think it really captures Zeus's personality. I wasn't in it to impress anyone except myself. It was definitely a personal journey, and the only one who could fail was me. I didn't fail, and it was enlightening, the lifting of crippling anxiety. Zeus is not going to change. But for me, I think I have gained a new confidence and can believe in myself, that I can continue to create and walk this beautiful journey as a sculptor and an artist. My art has become who I am. I'm really glad that y'all have joined me and look forward to many years of sharing my world.

The Sculpture: I started off by drawing a sketch of Zeus, emphasizing his rigid pose, attention, his deep stare, ears vertical, and of course, his razor back. I also made it as large as my kiln could hold, working on the concept and composition.

The next step was to build an armature. This armature needed to be strong and rigid enough to hold a couple of bags of clay. It ended up being 3 bags which is 75 lbs of clay.

From this point on, I built him up with layers and layers of clay, using hands and tools, adding and taking off, one of the beauties of sculpting with clay. I'd walk away for days, then come back, rework areas, and eventually like the results.

At this point, I need to remove clay from the interior, which is called hollowing out the sculpture or form. This requires cutting him apart into sections, hollowing out each section to about 1/2" of clay wall, and then putting him back together with slip and patience. I ended up constructing a drying support system that worked with his weight, the shrinking of the clay, and the slow drying process to eliminate cracking. This is one of the most critical steps of the sculpting process, full of anxiety, hoping you've thought of everything. Weeks of drying in this case.

'The next step, after drying, is to bisque fire him. This is where all the anxiety emerges until the moment you open the kiln. You go from 10 to 0 in a matter of seconds. But, I don't sleep while my sculptures are in the kiln. Although, once they're in there, there's not much to do but wait. I've been really successful with the kiln program I use for sculptures and haven't changed a thing since day one. If a sculpture cracks, it's usually the drying process that does it. After the successful bisque fire, I applied a red iron oxide wash as a base and then applied underglazes and a little bit of clear glaze on the nose to give it a wet look.

I then put him back in the kiln for a final fire, called a glaze fire. He came out perfect, and I decided to create a base untypical of something I would choose and used paints and raw wood to create the emotion of his reds, blacks, and whites. The reds are his anxiety, that which is in him and can't be controlled. The black is his blanket, his comfort zone, his warmth, and his veil. The white is his purity, his external glow. In life, he's a beautiful dog, but very misunderstood. I wanted to capture his struggle. The results are below.

Thanks again for coming along on this journey. Anxiety is crippling, but through experience, one can overcome what's deep inside us and find our way to the surface. A good support system helps, but, eventually, you find out you hold the key to unlock the locks. It's your world and you have the keys. Take care, much love, and hackles up.

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Ashli D Wells
Ashli D Wells
Jun 13, 2023

I totally get it.🙂 but my dogs are both too awful to even go to dog parks. I am a sculptor too. Bigfoot gets spotted out more than I do.😁However I decided that I was going to take my crippling social anxiety, autism, and partial seizure self and venture out into the world. I have literally attended gallery nights for two minutes and left because I fell like I was going to pass out, threw up, and cry simultaneously but I decided I wanted to have fun. I started entering shows in Round Rock and am getting in. I am going to put my big girl pants on go the receptions and make myself have fun. Sculpting is very isolating…

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First of all, thank you for reading my blog! I just assumed not many do, lol. I'm glad you get it. Social gatherings are really awkward for me as well. But, once I became more involved with my art, and let go, I found others who are just like me, and I can blend in and be comfortable talking, or not talking, and just being myself, without hiding behind a mask. I was also recently elected as the president of the Texas Society of Sculptors. Join us if you think you'd be into it. I think you'd find a lot of like-minded artists. I'm really happy you opened up to me. I'm not even sure how you found me,…

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