Zsu Zsi's legacy: Alberta bulldog inspires avalanche of Indigenous art

How one Alberta bulldog inspired a personal collection of art work, largely by prominent Canadian Indigenous artists.

Rubenesque bulldog ‘a muse’ for more than 60 paintings, sketchings, carvings and craft items

Zsu Zsi of the Night by Aaron Paquette -- the first of many paintings of an Edmonton bulldog by renowned Indigenous artists

6 years ago
Duration 3:07
Rubenesque figure "a muse" for more than 60 paintings.

It began with Zsu Zsi of the Night — the painting of a Rubenesque bulldog with a severe underbite and soulful gaze, stretched out seductively at the Terwillegar dog park in Edmonton.

"I screamed and then I laughed and I couldn't stop laughing," said Jackie Bugera, owner of Edmonton's Bearclaw Gallery, recalling the day in 2007 local Metis artist Aaron Paquette surprised her with a gift, the painting of her dearly beloved, late bulldog Zsu Zsi. "I was just incredibly touched and thrilled.

"And to have that permanent representation of her in Aaron's style with the 24 karat gold leaf halo around her which also adds a little element of paradox — it was awesome."

Prima Ballerina by Aaron Paquette (Jackie Bugera)

Back then, her bulldog was constantly by her side. Bugera said Zsu Zsi was soulful, sweet, laid back and loved by clients and artists alike.

The morning after Paquette's visit, Cree painter Jane Ash Poitras walked into the gallery, spotted the gift and also offered to paint Zsu Zsi. 

Ojibway/Sioux artist Linus Woods was next in line to capture the dog's likeness.

Little did Zsu Zsi know that she was going to be a muse for all of these artists- Aaron Paquette

"And so began this incredible collection of paintings of one dog," laughed Bugera, whose bulldog has also been the subject of Cree artist Leo Arcand, Inuit carver Matusi Lotuk and painters Jason Carter and Maxine Noel.

"I don't think you could orchestrate something like this. It had a life of its own."

A decade later that life is on display in "The Hall of Zsu Zsi." That's Bugera's personal collection, located in the basement of her home. It boasts more than 60 paintings, sketches, carvings, masks, even moccasins, sweatshirts and a guitar.
The real life Zsu Zsi - 'the face that launched a thousand brush strokes' (Jackie Bugera)

Some are gifts, others commissioned largely by renowned Indigenous artists from across North America.

Zsu Zsi twirling in a tutu, a nod to Edgar Degas; Zsu Zsi and Bugera in spectacles, by the late Daphne Odjig of the Indigenous Group of Seven; Queen Zsu Zsi with Bugera her court jester, illustrating the two pounds of cooked venison she ate daily, entitled I'm a fool for you, also by Paquette.

'Such a diva'

"She was always charming, but also a little bit put offish, so you couldn't help but be drawn in," said Paquette.

"Zsu Zsi was such a diva. Every time I would walk into the gallery she would put out her hand for me to massage, and I just thought, 'What an incredible little soul,' so I had to capture it."

He recalled Bugera's "joyful middle-of-her-soul laugh" when he unveiled Zsu Zsi of the Night.

Jackie Bugera takes Aaron Paquette on a tour of The Hall of Zsu Zsi

6 years ago
Duration 1:01
Jackie Bugera talks to Aaron Paquette about collection of artworks of her dog.

That was seven years ago. Recently Paquette visited the Hall of Zsu Zsi for the first time, his reaction a mixture of disbelief and delight.

"It is overwhelming to see all of these incredible artists from across North America contributing their skill and talent," said Paquette. "Little did Zsu Zsi know that she was going to be a muse for all of these artists."
Zsu Zsi by Leo Arcand (Jackie Bugera)

While carving a bulldog was a first for Arcand, portraying the beauty and spirituality of the animal world is not. He drew inspiration from the memory of Zsu Zsi's welcoming grunts; jowls flapping as she greeted clients and artists arriving at the gallery.

"You know bulldogs have that bold look," said Arcand. "Very, very serious, but she would have this little twinkle in her eye."

In Arcand's trademark style, Zsu Zsi's form comes to life in sandy coloured soapstone, millions of years old. On the reverse side, her spiritual ancestor, the wolf.

"I believe she's running with her ancestors in the spirit world," said the Alexander First Nation artist, whose carvings have been gifted to the likes of U.S. President Barack Obama from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.
Sweatshirt love: visual artist Jason Carter dropped by with hoodies for Jackie Bugera and Zsu Zsi.

Bugera considers it an honour to represent Indigenous artists and tell their stories in a gallery — opened by her mother — where she has worked since she was 10. 

"In return they are painting a little bit of my story," she said.

Paquette said Bugera and her family have been instrumental in fostering Indigenous art in Canada over the past few decades.

"The bond that she created with artists motivated all of us to do something to honour the bond that we saw that she had with her special Zsu Zsi," Paquette said.

"She was the face that launched a thousand brush strokes."

Carrie and Gary

American actress Carrie Fisher was in Alberta for the Edmonton Comic and Entertainment Expo a few months ago when she walked into the Bearclaw Gallery.
Carrie Fisher's dog Gary (Twitter )

Her French bulldog Gary is also pretty famous. "I said 'Awesome about the bulldog on the red carpet'," recalled Bugera.

The next day Bugera got to meet Gary, his trademark tongue hanging out, as he accompanied Fisher back to the gallery.

Bugera shared photographs of her Zsu Zsi collection.

"And she loved them," said Bugera, adding the Star Wars actress even expressed interest in commissioning a painting of Gary.

'All I feel is love'

Zsu Zsi, who was born with some health issues, died four years ago at the age of seven.

Shortly afterwards, Bugera received another painting from Linus Woods. It was Zsu Zsi on a boxcar, on her way to the spirit world.
To the Spirit World by Linus Woods (Jackie Bugera)

Recently, Bugera's collection grew once again. A new painting arrived by pop-surrealist Michael Abraham.

In it, Zsu Zsi is at the wheel of Bugera's 1959 Studebaker Lark. In the passenger seat, another bulldog applies black lipstick to her lip. The other bulldog is a portrait of Eloise, Bugera's current bulldog.

Back at the Hall of Zsu Zsi, the affectionate Eloise by her side, Bugera surveyed her collection.

"All I feel is love," she said. "I would call her my soulmate. I love, love her.

"She just brought a great amount of love into the gallery."


Andrea Huncar


Andrea Huncar reports on human rights and justice. Contact her in confidence at andrea.huncar@cbc.ca