Art and Activism: Meredith associate professor draws attention to homeless dogs

On a Sunday afternoon in late December at the North Wake Landfill Park in Wake County, Shannon Johnstone crouches on the ground to snap photos of Tom Thumb, a chocolate brown-and-white pit bull mix. Her husband, Anthony Corriveau, holds the end of the dog’s black training leash. Tom Thumb sits for a bacon-flavored treat. Two college students sitting on a bench scratch his head and neck. “He’s cute,” one says. Johnstone, associate professor of art at Meredith College, explains that he lives at the Wake County Animal Center and that he’s at the park for a photo shoot.

Tom Thumb doesn’t know it, but Johnstone may be the key to his finding a home. He has been at the animal shelter for 117 days. And on this day, Tom Thumb is the latest subject in Johnstone’s “Landfill Dogs” photography project.

“Landfill Dogs,” begun in 2012, is part of Johnstone’s 2013-14 academic year sabbatical. The project draws attention to homeless animals and to the problem of animal overpopulation. At least once a week since October 2012, Johnstone has photographed a shelter dog at the North Wake Landfill Park, which opened in 2010 on the site of a closed landfill.

Her choice of the landfill park is purposeful. Most county animal shelters, Johnstone notes, are part of the same division that deals with waste management. And if animals are euthanized, she adds, their bodies end up in the municipal landfill.

“Landfill Dogs” isn’t Johnstone’s first project focusing on shelters. “Breeding Ignorance” and “Shelter Life” draw attention to unwanted animals, animal overpopulation, and responsible pet ownership. Some of the images from these projects depict animals not just living in the shelters but dying—euthanized—in them.

For the second half of her sabbatical, Johnstone will continue “Landfill Dogs” and plans to, as part of the North Carolina Shelter Project, travel to every county animal shelter in North Carolina to photograph animals in their kennels, focusing on the reality of the animals’ everyday lives.

And though the “Landfill Dogs” photos depict dogs running, jumping, playing, and eating treats, Johnstone doesn’t see anything special about these dogs.

The idea, she says, is that any dog from any animal shelter can play and be loving. The ones featured in “Landfill Dogs” are no different.

Corriveau, Johnstone’s husband, said, “We’re taking the dogs no one wanted and showing how great they can be.” In other words, the dogs in Wake County are no different from the dogs in Mecklenburg or Ashe or Bladen or Hyde counties.

Though the project has an activism angle, Johnstone’s photographer’s eye is never lost. She is constantly looking for the best shot. Seeing a large puddle (it had rained earlier in the day), she says, “Oooh, a puddle! Maybe we can do some nice reflection shots!” On the small, dark, wispy clouds low in the sky: “The clouds are beautiful!” On the pink light from the setting sun: “Oh, look at the color! The sunset will be great.”

As a professor, Johnstone teaches the use of art as a platform for activism to Meredith students. For the past three summers, she has taught an art course called “Who Let the Dogs Out?”

During the six-week course, students learn how to take appealing photographs of shelter animals for shelter web sites. They spend at least seven hours each week taking and editing photos for the web, most of them at the Wake County Animal Center, which receives an average of 35 new animals each day. The goals of the class, says Johnstone, are to get Meredith students into the community, to educate students on animal overpopulation, and to give students a chance to apply concrete skills.

Pauline Ro, a Meredith senior majoring in studio art, took the class in the summer of 2013. “I’d always loved animals,” she said. “And I thought this class would be a perfect opportunity for me to help in a creative way.”

Ro didn’t know just how much the class would impact her. For starters, after she took the course, she and her family fostered and eventually adopted Stella, a pit bull, from the Wake County Animal Center. Ro began helping Johnstone with the weekly “Landfill Dogs” photo shoots. And what’s more, Ro says, the class helped her realize her own passion for giving back to her community.

“I have seen how art can be used as an instrument to talk about social justice,” Ro said. “Before, I had mostly thought about the personal and aesthetic experience of art.”

In the summer of 2012, Sara-Anne Averett, a Meredith junior majoring in graphic design, took “Who Let the Dogs Out?” online from her home in Winston-Salem, volunteering at the nearby Yadkin County Animal Shelter. Part of the draw of the class, Averett said, was knowing that she’d have Johnstone as a professor.

“She’s so passionate,” Averett said.

From the class, Averett learned about pet overpopulation. “I didn’t realize it was that big of an issue, and it’s not because there’s not enough homes – people don’t spay and neuter their pets.”

Beth Mulvaney, art department chair at Meredith, notes that the qualities that Johnstone brings to her art are the qualities that make her an excellent Meredith professor.

“Students are influenced by her integrity, compassion and passion, and dedication to teaching and to educating others not only about art but also about pet overpopulation,” Mulvaney said.

Johnstone’s dedication to her mission has inspired local and national media coverage of “Landfill Dogs.” ABC World News Tonight with Diane Sawyer, the News & Observer (Raleigh, N.C.), the Associated Press, BuzzFeed, and the Huffington Post, among other outlets, have featured “Landfill Dogs.” In January and February 2014, Artspace, an art gallery and studio in downtown Raleigh, showcased a selection of the photographs from “Landfill Dogs.” ¬

With this kind of attention, Johnstone’s “Landfill Dogs” project and her “Who Let the Dogs Out?” course have drawn awareness locally and nationally to Meredith College.

“It’s important for Meredith to offer the class because it’s making students go out and serve the community,” Ro said. “It helps our reputation as a school.”

At least one of the dogs in Johnstone’s series found a home with a Meredith alumna. Margeaux Spiegel, ’11, adopted Harry, an auburn-colored lab mix, from the Wake County Animal Center in November 2013. Though Spiegel didn’t know it, Harry was one of Johnstone’s “Landfill Dogs” (called Harold then).

When Spiegel and Harry were settling in at home, Johnstone contacted her about doing a follow-up photo shoot. That’s when Spiegel, who’s now pursuing her master’s degree at Meredith, learned about “Landfill Dogs”—and when she and Johnstone discovered their Meredith connection.

Johnstone does not take credit for the “Landfill Dogs” that have been adopted. She praises the efforts of the staff and volunteers at the Wake County Animal Center. And she notes that not all of the dogs in her series have been ¬adopted: some are still waiting for homes, and others, though fewer, have been euthanized.

Back at her photo shoot with Tom Thumb, Johnstone holds the tennis ball in her right hand and her camera up to her face with her left hand. Tom Thumb sits, posing for her camera. The tennis ball falls from Johnstone’s hand, hitting the grass below, and Tom Thumb runs toward the ball. “That was my fault,” Johnstone says. “I dropped the ball. Literally.” She laughs. Tom Thumb doesn’t know that Johnstone might be the key to his finding a home. All he knows is that today, he is outside, the sun is shining, and bacon-flavored treats are coming his way.

How You Can Help

Donate: Donate money or time to your local animal shelter.
Purchase: Purchase prints of the “Landfill Dogs” photos at
Adopt: Adopt your own Landfill Dog at your local animal shelter. Ask for the dog (or cat!) that has been at the shelter the longest.
Share: Stay up to date with “Landfill Dogs” and Johnstone’s next project on Facebook:

This article originally appeared in the Spring 2014 issue of Meredith Magazine.

Melyssa Allen

News Director
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(919) 760-8087
Fax: (919) 760-8330