Standing in Jaimie Bowes' Palm Aire home, it was tough to listen to her story because of those eyes.
They followed me, everywhere.
No, not Jaimie's eyes, but those of the cat.
This particular one was a furry mop with a dark face and dark paws. The eyes could best be described as a piercing blue. When you turned around, they would burn a hole in the back of your head. Looking ... looking.
This cat wasn't even breathing. It was one of Bowes' portraits.
If you have been to the Haunted Mansion at Disney World, you understand. Those eyes in the paintings follow you everywhere.
Bowes wasn't going for a spooky effect, but it's obvious she knows how to bring her paintings to life, and perhaps that is why she makes a living now from painting people's pets.
When I heard about Bowes' painting of pooches, I wanted to hear the backstory. Also, I have absolutely zero artistic talent. I can't draw effective stick figures, so I appreciate those who can.
Bowes obviously has an incredible amount of talent. But why not people portraits, or landscapes or ships?
"A lot of people are crazy about their pets," she said. "You see them pushing pets around in a baby carriage. I thought I could market this and it has kept me busy."
Working from a small studio in her home, Bowes completes a pet portrait in about two weeks. She does a photo shoot with the pet, then begins to paint.
"I have a passion for it, and I pay a lot of attention to detail," she said.
I asked her how she morphed into pet paintings and she was then kind enough to give me the tour of her home.
Leading me from one room to another, it was like walking through a mini-museum separated by periods.
Our first stop was a hallway which was dominated by a large depiction of a horse show at the Petersborough (Ontario, Canada) Exhibition that she crafted with color pencils at 12 years old. Growing up on a horse farm in Petersborough, Bowes had a passion for both animals and art.
That first major work of art remains one of her favorites. "I won $25 and a red ribbon," she said through a smile that never left her face during the impromptu tour. "I was thrilled and proud, and I thought, 'Now I know what I am going to do.'"
Well, kind of.
The story of her life's winding highway was as entertaining as the exhibits. As a teen-ager, she changed her first name from Barbara to Jaimie because she thought it fit her better. At 19, she attended the Art Institute of Fort Lauderdale and studied fashion illustration, only to find that the beach life made it tough for a farm girl from Canada to keep her focus.
It was back to Canada, where she worked as a waitress and an artist's assistant before a second shot at education at the Ontario College of Art.
She went into her silk scarves phase and opened a studio in Toronto. A marriage led her Ridgefield, Conn., where her scarves did quite nicely.
Eventually it was on to other endeavors. She worked as a makeup artist and put herself through massage school. She tried her hand at weaving and pottery and her travels brought her to Sarasota, where her mother, Wihla Stuart, owned a home.
Now 61, Bowes talked about her success doing murals when Lakewood Ranch exploded with construction after 2000. For a five-year period, she had more work than she could handle as everyone seemed to think that the good life meant that you had a mural of a vineyard somewhere in your home.
New home owners wouldn't blink an eye to pay $5,000 or more to paint a nursery.
You could understand why when Bowes stopped in front of one of her murals of a woman carrying a basket on her head. It was so vivid, you expected the women to put the basket down at any moment.
However, the mural paint business dried up and Bowes had to find another subject.
It was that full circle you've heard of so often, Bowes going back to her childhood love of animals, and pets.
Now she spends her days alone in her studio, painting those portraits. Well, not alone.
There are those eyes, and they always are watching.
For those who would like to find out more about Bowes, she was a website at jaimiebowesartist.com.
Jay Heater is the managing editor of the East County Observer. Overall, he has been in the business more than 41 years, 26 spent at the Contra Costa Times in the San Francisco Bay area as a sportswriter covering college football and basketball, boxing and horse racing.