If you ever  call artist Matt Rinard at his home in New Orleans, be prepared for occasional interruptions from the Antichrist. "That’s my Miniature Schnauzer, Lucy," Rinard explains, when an impossibly high, growling squeal breaks out in the background. "She’s possessed by the Devil."

The deadpan delivery of this statement gives you a hint at the kind of humour Matt Rinard’s work is famous for: ironic, surprising, and just a little off-kilter. His paintings and prints are also prized for their bold composition and vibrant colours, but it is his quirky sense of humour and his subject matter that have won him a devoted following among pet owners around the world. Dogs and cats appear in many of Rinard’s images, sometimes as companions to human subjects, but more often as the main characters in an imaginative array of comical situations.

The antics of his own three dogs are a source of inspiration for Rinard, but sometimes the process seems to work in reverse. Which brings us back to Lucy. "She was a good puppy," Rinard recalls, "but when she turned one, she became the Antichrist and started slowly destroying our house. That was kind of ironic, since I had done a piece called Welcome Home, in which a guy comes home to find that his dog and cat have destroyed the place. I guess you could say it was a case of life imitating art."

Rinard also finds inspiration in the unique character of life in New Orleans, a city he loves for its history, its open-mindedness, its sense of community, and its support for the arts. Ashe puts it, "Anyone who ever leaves New Orleans always ends up coming back." The city’s legendary jazz and its signature dish, jambalaya, both find their way into Rinard’s paintings. Looking through his work, you can almost hear, taste and feel the vivid pulse of New Orleans itself.

"I truly love living here," Rinard says, "though there’s something about this place that makes a lot of people go completely nuts. Like you’ll get some mild-mannered banker come down from Ohio or something, and the next thing you know, he’s walking around the French Quarter wearing assless chaps. But that’s okay, because things just don’t faze people around here."

You likely won’t find Rinard parading around in assless chaps, but you will find him designing posters for the annual "Barkus Parade," a fantastic pageant of dressed-up dogs and their owners that raises funds for a number of animal charities each February. "I’ve been involved with the parade for about five years," says Rinard. "It’s a parody of the Bacchus parade that a lot of prominent business owners in the city participate in. That happens a few days before Fat Tuesday, and Barkus is a week before that. Barkus has a grand marshall and a king, just like Mardi Gras. My Miniature Pinscher, Sam, was king one year and he knew it was a special day for him. He was so proud, he really got this inflated ego at the time, posing for pictures for all these photographers."

Rinard’s own ego seems firmly in check, despite his work’s growing popularity, acclaimed exhibits in both Europe and North America, and talks with the Cartoon Network in Hollywood, which is interested in having Rinard create an animated show for TV. "The main thing I want is for people to hopefully get a good laugh from my work," he says modestly, "though I know there are people out there who just don’t get it." He explains that his work tends to be very well-received in big cities but doesn’t always go over so well in other markets. "I had this one woman who was trying to market it in the Midwest, and after giving it a try she came back and said, ‘Well, they’re more interested in things like teddy bears.’ That’s fine with me. I’m happy that I have the audience I do, and that I’m able to pursue my art like this.

Of course, if Rinard ever does start to get too high on himself, there’s always Lucy to keep him in check, as she has done so effectively in the past. "I was flush with cash at one point," he recalls, "so I went nuts and spent way too much on some Versace bedding and matching pillows that cost $200 each. Well, Lucy chewed a hole right through the bedding, and she tore those pillows to shreds. The funny thing was that she left all the other pillows alone. It was like the dog was telling me how ridiculous all that designer crap was, trying to keep me grounded." Judging by how nice a guy the very talented Matt Rinard is, Lucy is doing a wonderful job.

To find out more about Matt Rinard and see more of his work, visit his website at www.mattrinard.com, or if you’re traveling to New Orleans, drop by the Guthrie Rinard Gallery at 738 Royal Street in the heart of the French Quarter. To find out more about the Barkus Parade, you can go to www.barkus.org. ■

Susan Kauffmann lives in Vancouver with her Malamute, Kuma, who must have also been inspired by Rinard’s Welcome Home. How Kuma got to New Orleans to see the painting remains a mystery.