There is this thing that humans — not all of them but, observationally, a sizable majority — do to suffering: They want it to mean something. We want that meaning to make the suffering noble, and we want that noble suffering to reframe that tragedy as beneficial for us.
Just watch someone (your humble narrator, for instance) unexpectedly confronted with bad news — international crisis, historical atrocity, personal tragedy — and odds are that the first thing their (my) brain will do is run that information through a rose-colored filter, sifting for the necessary wisdom harshly learned, the promise of opportunity in catastrophe, the gratitude which can only be found through hardship.
Halt, they’ll (I’ll) say. There is no reason to experience sadness or anger or uncertainty, because if you just look at it this way… If it weren’t for the rain, there would be no rainbow. If it weren’t for the accident, you’d never have learned to appreciate the things that really matter. If the bubonic plague hadn’t killed half of Florence, the Renaissance could never have happened.
But artist and Instagrammer Eliza Reinhardt, for one, is not interested in revisionist positivity. People, well-meaning if careless people, are always joking about how lucky she is, how they wish they could be in her shoes. She’s been hearing if for as long as she can remember.
Which is not to say that the Iowa City native is not positive. She is relentlessly joyful, the kind of indefatigably UP! that not even a four-hour Zoom interview from the “violent heat” of her home in Texas can deflate. The closest she will come to swearing is to say that something is “a bummer.” Finn, the 4-year-old Australian Shepherd she shares with her partner, Ryan Dorman, is sprawled across her lap, rolled onto his back, the better to receive tummy rubs. Eliza’s bright blue eyes, framed in shadow the same pink as strawberry Starburst, are expressive like a silent movie heroine. She frequently pushes back the bangs of a tousled mullet, which is at the precise nexus of glam-metal frontman and professional wrestling enthusiast.
“I do not love when people joke about it,” she explains. Eliza wears at least one ring on every finger, and she talks with her hands as if tracing a Pollock mural, nearly every sentence punctuated with a flash or snap of silver. “They’re like ‘Oh, I wish I had amnesia; I could just forget everything bad that happened’ or ‘Boom — childhood trauma erased!’ People think you just get to start over, like a clean slate, but it’s like severing a whole time period, and it’s not fun.”
You can understand why people would say those things, though. What happened to Eliza was so rare and random and mysterious that even her doctors can’t fully explain it, and what is the common person supposed to do with that? You reframe it into something you recognize or control: a punchline or a parable.
And the story of Finn and Eliza fits neatly in that Hollywood trope of triumph over adversity, creation from destruction, viral contagion begetting viral fame. For a little more than a year, Finn and Eliza have been collaborating to recreate famous works of art using only themselves and common household supplies as the medium. After more than 300 recreations, they have garnered more than 10,000 followers on Instagram, including the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, which regularly, giddily, retweets Finn and Eliza’s reproductions of the collection. It is the kind of movie Drew Barrymore might make.
But we are getting ahead of ourselves. We need to first go back, back before Chewy and BarkBox started shipping Finn free goodie bags, back before that one TikTok went six-figure viral, before the pandemic, before art school, back before Eliza can even remember.
Back to April 2013. A senior at Iowa City West High, a mere two months from graduation, Eliza went to the hospital for surgery to correct a series of wrist injuries. The procedure went fine, and she returned home in an impressive cast. Later — maybe it was the next day or maybe the following week — Eliza went to open the back door for her dad, and she passed out.
“I have been diagnosed with vasovagal syncope,” she explains. Sometimes her nerve impulses get crossed: Her blood pressure might plummet at the same moment her heart rate slows, and it’s lights out. “It has to do with hydration and how I don’t retain water well. It’s under control now, but there was a while when there was a lot of fainting.”
When she fainted, Eliza fell backward into the door and struck her head right on the door knob. She experienced some seizure activity (or maybe that was later, she can’t be sure), but when she opened her eyes, everything seemed fine. She’d had concussions before, from basketball and cheerleading, and besides, they would be back at the hospital in the morning for a cast change; they would ask the doctors about it then.
“I didn’t know who my mom was when she came to wake me up. When we got to the hospital, I didn’t know my name or my birthday, so they admitted me.”
Tests and scans revealed no significant swelling or any bleeding in the brain, nothing to explain her retrograde amnesia, which blotted out more and more of her past. Before long, Eliza had lost all her memories; everything before the moment her head struck the door was blank, like a canvas painted over or a photograph faded into mist.
“I didn’t know who anyone was; I didn’t know what anything was.”
She forgot how to read, how to write, how to walk. She never returned to West High; while her classmates rented limos for prom and walked across the stage with diplomas, Eliza rode in a wheelchair from neurotherapy to physical therapy and back home again. People were always asking what she didn’t remember, but the question confused her. The memories — every favorite song and birthday party and geometry lesson and every face she’d ever known — weren’t “missing.” They were erased. Obliterated. There were no holes whose shape suggested what had been lost; there was only a void without edges.
In a TikTok from Jan. 9, 2021, more than seven years after her accident, Eliza tries to explain what losing 18 years feels like.
“I had to relearn to walk. I had to relearn to brush my teeth. I didn’t even remember that those were things people did.”
People were drawn to her story, which quickly climbed to nearly half-a-million views. In the comments section was that familiar relentless positivity: Wouldn’t it be great to forget every bad thing that happened? Every broken heart and emotional trauma and middle school dance and awkward orthodontics, released, pardoned? How lucky can you get?
“What people don’t get is the constant confusion of where you are or what is going on. The constant asking for help — the total lack of independence.” Her mother had to push her in a wheelchair for weeks before physical therapy got her on her feet again, but other problems were more persistent. “I had a lot of trouble with words. I could look at a banana and I would know what it was but I could not figure out what it was called. I could feel my brain trying to get it, but it wouldn’t come out.”
Eliza twists the rings on her fingers as she recalls. “I was like a shell. There was no personality.” She shakes her head, checks to see if Finn is sleeping peacefully on the couch, and sighs. “People only see the ‘you get to start over’ part, but in the moment it was very scary.”
Which brings us back to the plague and the renaissance. “Renaissance,” as anyone who took intro to art history (as Eliza would when she resumed her education) knows, means “rebirth.” It just so happens that this flourishing era of artistic and scientific discovery directly followed a period when the Black Death killed as much as half the population of Eurasia and Northern Africa, some 200 million people — which makes you wonder if it is possible for something to start over without first coming to an end, and whether clichés contain, at their core, some splinter of truth.
Things began to return to Eliza. Not her memories — those remain distant to this day — but once Eliza’s condition was stable, her love for learning returned with a vengeance.
“At some point, everybody else seemed more scared than I was.” She brightens here: “Once I knew things were going to be alright, I got excited. I got to learn everything, and I have always loved to learn.”
Her coordination and strength improved, graduating from the wheelchair to walking with support to a pigeon-toed shuffle all on her own. The subject of college had lingered all summer, but in the end, Eliza and her parents agreed: She would go to the University of Iowa and live in the dorms, her parents just across town if she needed anything. College turned out to be a surprisingly comfortable context for an amnesiac: everyone was working to molt their hometown identity and grow into someone new.
“It was really nice to be surrounded by people who also don’t know people or where they are. I didn’t feel like a crazy person.”
Not everything was seamless. A girl bounced up to Eliza during freshman orientation and asked her how she was doing. Eliza smiled back, said she was great, that her name was Eliza and that she was going to be a freshman. The girl stared back in disbelief; they had gone to school together since they were 6, they were friends. At some point Eliza realized she didn’t remember what she liked to eat, so her friends helped make a chart to hang near the mini-fridge: the foods she liked, those she didn’t and those flavors which depended on the day.
The social aspect was the hardest: “There were things I learned, like trust and whatnot — who you can and cannot trust. So you learn that kind of the hard way, like you do when you are 4 years old. But you are learning that with college kids.” Here she smiles and shakes her head at the potential peril. “Luckily I had good friends to assist.”
During her freshman and sophomore years, Eliza grew more confident, felt closer to her whole self, but her amnesia never abated. Her doctors now hypothesized that those earlier concussions had a cumulative effect; that last fainting spell and injury was a tipping point. Along with all her childhood memories, Eliza lost all her “schooling knowledge.” Algebra and geometry had been erased, along with world history, biology and chemistry. She took every class that sparked her interest, but always felt behind, too far back to catch up.
It was her mom who suggested she take a drawing class. Jennifer Black Reinhardt earned her own degree in fine art and worked in graphic design before forging a career as the author and illustrator of a dozen or so children’s books. She was also the third generation of working female artists in the family, but had never pressured Eliza to take up the family business. Eliza signed up for an art class and liked it enough (“More than anything else I’d taken!”) to declare, tentatively, an art major.
“[The next semester,] I was in John [Dilg]’s life drawing class, and he told me I was not a drawer, but he bet I was a painter,” Eliza recalls. That might have been difficult news for a newly declared art major, but Eliza felt it already. “I am very attracted to the physicality of paint. I do not like the little tiny mark that a pencil makes. I like the mark of paint and how large it is. I took one painting class and I loved it, and that was it.” For the next three years, Eliza studied almost nothing but painting.
“I still was not great at communicating, still had language issues … but I could paint it out, and talk about things that way. Painting became a way to cope through what was going on.”
Five years after a brain injury took everything she’d ever known, Eliza graduated from the University of Iowa with a Bachelor’s in Fine Arts, with a focus in painting. Her boyfriend, Ryan, completed his track and field career and a BFA in Photography that same spring, and the wide world beckoned. Eliza took a position at the City Museum in St. Louis, itself a century-old shoe warehouse reborn as 600,000 square feet of installation and gallery space. They packed a car with everything they owned, leaving just enough space for Ryan’s new puppy Finn, and drove off into the sunset.
There it is again — you can feel it too, can’t you? That temptation to polish the silver lining to shame the cloud. The neurological trauma that disrupted her life was actually divine intervention — a benevolent lightning bolt that burned her hollow, only so that she might be refilled, reborn. An unexpected renaissance after years of struggle and uncertainty.
Which is how this story would end if such things were true.
Within a year of moving to St. Louis, the City Museum closed indefinitely due to COVID-19 (an entirely non-metaphorical plague symbolizing nothing more than itself). Eliza was laid off, then a second time from her part-time job in a gallery. Ryan’s job in a grocery store labeled him an “essential worker,” so Eliza found herself spending long days alone. Just like that, the world was unfamiliar and distant again.
“I painted a lot in the beginning,” Eliza explained, hoping the same inspiration which transcended her illness might sustain her through quarantine. And it might have done, if Ryan’s puppy — the anxious, spastic little Finnegan — hadn’t needed her so much.
“Finn was 2-and-a-half, and he was a tornado. I would go in my studio, and Finn would cry and scratch at the door.” Eliza smiles at Finn curled on the couch, who lifts his head expectantly at the sound of his name, little plug of tail humming. The Australian Shepherd is a working dog, bred to herd sheep and cattle, which were in short supply in downtown St. Louis, though that may not have made much difference. “He doesn’t really have a herding instinct with other dogs or with kids,” Eliza explains. “He does with cars, trucks, skateboarders — anything with wheels he thinks he needs to get in line, but livestock?” Finn’s collar jangles from the couch as he shakes his head, then yawns and curls back into sleep.
With no job to do, Finn could not focus or relax, which meant Eliza couldn’t either.
“I didn’t know what to do. I was taking him to the dog park four times a day, and he would calm down for, like, 15 minutes, but then he was at it again.”
Again, it was her mother who offered a kind word at the right moment. The Metropolitan Museum in New York was also closed, but via social media @MetMuseum invited art lovers to choose any work from their collection to recreate in their home using whatever items were at hand, an idea borrowed from @TussenKunstEnQuarantiane (“Between Art and Quarantine”), an account which had appeared in the Netherlands a few weeks earlier, as Europe experienced the first wave of COVID contagion and closure.
“She sent me the link and said ‘Why don’t you try to do this and include Finn as a dog?’ I remember vividly going to the Met collection online and searching ‘dog painting.’”
Mather Brown, born in Boston in 1761, studied under Gilbert Stuart, the foremost portrait artist in the colonies, before moving to England to become the first American-born artist to study at the Royal Academy in 1782. He missed out on the revolution, but, in 1786, painted the first known portrait of Thomas Jefferson (who also sat out the revolution in London, which was itself enjoying a small outbreak of Scarlet Fever that summer). That same year, Brown created a portrait in oils of an unnamed wealthy matron, bewigged and powdered and Fragonarded with lace. On the seat cushion to her left, a springer spaniel stares expectantly at the woman who stares back at the viewer. Two-hundred thirty-five years later, this was the first image result the Met’s website offered up to Eliza and Finn.
That first Instagram post was a modest recreation. Eliza sits on the couch in their St. Louis loft which she has covered with a blanket to match the color of the settee in Brown’s portrait. Her Def Leppard shag is pulled up to suggest a powdered wig. Finn sits to her left, but stares out of frame. Eliza uploaded that first recreation collaboration on April 2, 2020, just two days short of the seven-year anniversary of the wrist surgery which led to her vasovagal syncope which led to her concussion which led to everything else.
It got 207 likes.
A few days later Eliza and Finn recreated Duccio di Buoninsegna’s Madonna and Child, c. 1290 (about 50 years before the Black Death would kill half the inhabitants of Buoninsegna’s hometown of Siena). Eliza is wrapped in a bathrobe with the hood up to mimic Mary’s veil, and she cradles Finn, sitting in for Jesus, who stares directly at the viewer. The yellow glow of sodium lights in an underground parking garage approximates the gold leaf of di Buoninsegna’s icon. Only 101 likes — and their first critical reviews.
“The only times when we have even gotten weird threat comment-things are when he takes the place of God or Jesus. Then people get really weird and wish horrible things on him. And me.” She shrugs. “I’m not making a mockery of it. There is no bad intent on my end at all. It’s just …” again her fingers curl, grasping for the right word before language fails her and she settles: “… funny to me.”
Funny word, “funny.” It can mean either “strange” or “off-putting” (see above), or it can be reinterpreted as “humorous” or “light-hearted,” which is what Eliza (and Finn) leaned into at the start.
“In the beginning I relied heavily on the funny factor,” Eliza explains, almost as an apology. The fire and brimstone of humorless evangelicals gave her no pause, but potentially blaspheming the dogma of art criticism had her momentarily penitent. “I was nervous in the beginning to poke fun at things or make statements in the work. Coming from ‘Art Land,’ having to defend every move you make in your work, makes you feel like you are walking on eggshells.”
The intense self-reflection demanded in a fine arts education, coupled with the sometimes brutal critique from peers and instructors, can sharpen the talent and resolve of some artists, but can snuff out the creative impulse just as easily. Eliza has many friends from the university who stopped painting after art school, because of art school.
“There is this weird idea that you have to make art for a reason, that you must explain or defend it; you can’t just make it because you want to.” Eliza’s concussion and amnesia taught her language was unreliable, but her education showed it could be menacing.
But these portraits were different. They weren’t Art exactly — more like the Venn overlap of performance art and pillow forts. The stakes were low: just her Instagram, just a couple hours to research and set up, just a silly thing to do to keep your spastic dog from gnawing on the furniture during lockdown. At first, Eliza and Finn stuck to portraiture, but quickly exhausted every painting in the Met’s collection with a dog in it. Finn stood in for cats and monkeys in Frida Kahlo’s self-portraits, then bathing infants for Mary Cassatt’s domestic scenes, then a unicorn from a medieval tapestry — but always a figure posed to mimic the original.
Finn had a job now, something to do, which calmed his nerves immensely. He started taking direction, learning where to look for this image, how to sit patiently with a Post-It note mustache for that portrait. Occasionally, he brought a favorite toy or bone and demanded it be included in the shot. And Eliza began painting again, first backdrops for their reproductions, then her own skin to evoke Picasso’s cubism or Van Gogh’s thick lines. And then something happened that was — funny.
“I think it was the Mask of Fear (1932) by Paul Klee,” she recalls, hoisting Finn off the ground into her lap, as if to ask if that is how he remembers it as well. “It is a big mask with four black feet on the bottom.”
Those four little feet sparked something in her brain. What if Finn wasn’t a dog? Not even a figure at all, but a mark, a brushstroke? It had the electric flavor of something familiar but unexpected. What had started as a whimsical side project to distract her from the fact she couldn’t paint had come full circle, back to the visceral thrill that attracted her to painting in Dilg’s class.
“It’s interesting how the way I paint comes out in [our recreations]. I love the mark-making of paint, how one mark can say so much. You don’t have to form this rendered face, you can make a very powerful image with marks. I can use the dog, fabric, socks, and those things emulate a brushstroke for me. It is a mark I am laying with an object.”
To make that happen, Eliza had to change perspective as well: Instead of posing vertically, as if for a portrait, she made the floor of their studio the canvas. With no equipment to take an overhead shot, Eliza grabbed a ladder and used packing tape to fix her iPhone to the ceiling (a method she uses to this day). Stray articles of clothing and fabric were selected for color and arranged to evoke the shading and line of the artist’s paint. Finn was wrapped up in an old sweatshirt to match the color of the mask, mostly hidden, with only his nose and four paws peeking out like marks on a canvas.
And the rest, as they say, is history. Where they had been cautious and representational before, Eliza and Finn now embraced abstraction and absurdity. They had been the subject of those early experiments, but now Finn and Eliza sank into the images they created, submerged or swaddled in T-shirts and towels and fleece blankets. Totems of the quarantine experience — rolls of toilet paper, disposable face masks, so many food delivery containers — were incorporated as if to pay tribute to the pestilence which led to this renaissance.
By dismissing the idea that art needed to have something to say, Eliza gave herself room to say something honest.
And the world responded. First, the art world, with the Met, the Getty, and the Tate all reposting Eliza and Finn’s reproductions of works in their collection. Professors T.J. Norris and Thomas Agran from Iowa both reached out to offer support and praise. “No one has said, ‘This is such a joke,’” Eliza says, and exhales. That was exactly what she feared colleagues and mentors might say of her work on the canvas, and here they were, praising work that was, at the beginning at least, very much a joke.
Even more surprising was the response of the broader social media landscape. Her Instagram following, just a few hundred friends and family before that first recreation, shot up over 10,000, and most of those people did not come for the art.
“It took off pretty quickly once we started pushing the limits on what he was. People are so amused by a dog in clothing,” Eliza smiles and gives Finn’s belly the kind of scratch that can really get a leg going. “People tell us all the time: ‘I know nothing about art, I just love dogs.’” But here’s the funny thing: They came for a cute picture, a joyful image during the dark days, but then they get curious, start to think about what they are seeing, start to learn and grow.
“In these photos, playing to humor, pushing it to the point of absurdity, I think it makes things less frightening. People without formal training are drawn to the image because it is so out there that you feel comfortable,” she says. It’s just a silly picture of a woman and her dog; what could be less threatening? “You can’t interpret something wrong when it’s this weird.”
Parents emailed to tell Eliza how they sit with their kids and pour over the paintings to find where Finn is hidden, to decipher the items Eliza uses in place of the objects in the original: a hammer to replace a phone receiver, a handful of Q-tips tucked into Finn’s fur to indicate a porcupine’s thick bristles, action figures and troll dolls to represent tortured souls in Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.
“It is interesting to need to replace an object with something I have. Is it more important to have the shape of the object or the color? Or the size? Those decisions are very interesting, and it makes me excited when people pick up on them.”
Suddenly people were really paying attention to how the image was made, then returning to the original to compare. Fans messaged Eliza to say they were curating a collection of favorite artists introduced to them by Finn.
Eliza, in turn, began choosing which artists she and Finn represented with more care. While their reproductions of Starry Night or The Mona Lisa had name recognition that increased the traffic for those posts, Eliza and Finn began to intentionally incorporate lesser-known artists, directing their modest spotlight on female and BIPOC artists whose works have been dismissed or suppressed by the academy. She started including micro biographies of the artists along with the images.
“When my mom told me March was Women’s History Month, I made it my goal to do a different female artist every day, no repeats.” She poured over the online archives from the National Museum of Women Artists in Washington D.C., to which she’d won a free membership with a picture of Finn.
By now Ryan and Eliza and Finn had left St. Louis for Denton, Texas, but little changed for Finn and Eliza (except for the fact that Eliza has become an enthusiastic convert to “y’all”: “Such a great word,” she sighs dreamily, delighted by its utility and how it’s always right there when you need it). Every morning begins with an online search for their image that day. She will research the artist for a short write-up, then spend four or five hours staging their scene. There is something freeing about the fleeting, impermanent nature of the work: one image a day, every day.
“With oil painting, you work on a single image for weeks, and that can get draining and tired. But this? It is new every day, and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll do a new one tomorrow. It’s not the end of the world.” Which is a great attitude to have, especially during a pandemic that looked, for a minute there, very much like the beginning of the end of the world.
And Finn, the once twitchy Aussie pup, previously so stressed that he chewed on door frames, is now, not two years later, the very picture of relaxation. He flomps (there is no other word for it) across Eliza’s lap, his black-and-white furry body gone liquid in repose, like Michelangelo’s Pietà or Dali’s minute hand. Eliza insists that Finn, like any great artist, can be feisty, a prima donna, but his deep snoring undermines the assertion.
“People adore Finn,” she whispers, so as not to wake him. “I knew people would like him, but the way people act about him is hilarious. They treat him like royalty.”
Finn receives birthday presents. The PR departments from Blue Buffalo and Chewy have sent him boxes stuffed with high-end dog swag, like a generous patron to a Renaissance artist. He can tell the difference between the sound of a UPS truck transmission and one from Amazon (UPS delivers his Chewy goodies). Recently Finn started receiving care packages from BarkBox, where Eliza started as a part-time intern in February.
“When I applied, they recognized Finn,” Eliza says by way of explaining how she got the job. “The first contract I signed with BarkBox was for ‘Eliza and Finn.’” A few people have recognized him from Instagram, and the reactions can be intense. “I picked him up from day care and the girl came running out with Finn and exclaimed ‘This is Finn! Finn from Reddit! This is the real Finn!’ And I said, ‘Yes. And I’m Eliza. Nice to meet you.’” BarkBox recently brought Finn and Eliza on full-time to help manage their social media.
Finn has taken this celebrity in stride. When Eliza self-published a collection of their quarantine recreations, Isolation Painting Recreations, Volume 1: How a Girl and Her Dog Survived a Pandemic, Finn happily honored all requests for a signed copy (more an inky paw print, but distinctively his own). The first print run sold out on Etsy almost immediately, as did the second, then third, then fourth. Eliza has sold more than 500 copies of the book, and she plans to order more in preparation for the holiday shopping season. The 2021 calendar sold out as well, and Eliza is putting the finishing touches on her 2022 calendar which will be stocked in her Etsy store (though probably not for long!).
But before that can happen, Finn must get to work. Spread across the studio floor is a disaster of color and potential. Somehow he and his human must take this chaos of running shoes and cardboard scraps and rawhide bones and Barbie dolls and cotton balls and paint brushes and stuffed animals and pizza boxes, looking for all the world like the rubble after something catastrophic, and reconsider it, give it a new life as something beautiful. He slides off Eliza’s lap and looks expectantly up at her, but it is not until Eliza asks him “Finn, wanna take a picture?” that his nubbin of tail really gets going, and Finn is ready for his close-up.
If Adam Witte were a painting, he would wish to be something from the renaissance full of chubby Rubenesque cherubs frolicking naked in the clouds, but fears a collab between Munch’s ‘The Scream’ and ‘Where’s Waldo?’ might be more likely. Either way, he is just grateful to spend every Starry, Starry Night with the woman whose Mona Lisa smile would be worth cutting off an ear to behold. This article was originally published in Little Village issue 299.