Mitch Kuhnke sat in front of a web camera in his Belle Plaine home on Sept. 23. At his workstation sits a half-painted portrait of a Chihuahua that is taking shape in front of a remote audience’s eyes. That audience is known as the 1800 or so followers to Freakmeister1, Kuhnke’s user name on the streaming platform Twitch.
Unlike many on the platform who use it to broadcast themselves playing video games to their followers, Kuhnke has built his following by painting the pets of his followers and others who commission the 27-year-old.
Since January when Kuhnke began his painting endeavor and as of Sept. 19, the artist has painted a total of 73 dogs and 14 cats. In roughly that same time frame, the Freakmeister1 Twitch channel has grown from 0 to over 1800 subscribers.
Streams like that of last Monday can last several hours, during which point Kuhnke interacts with his followers in real-time through the platform’s live comment section.
The comments on Kuhnke’s streams, of which there are 71, are a combination of personal questions about Kuhke’s life and art, inside jokes laden with subtext and anything and everything in between.
There’s a community that I don’t even want to say I built—I feel like it was a group effort between all of us,” Kuhnke said of his followers. “They’re all just such nice people.”
Now, from Sept. 27-29, Kuhnke will have a chance to meet some of those followers in person, as well as other steamers he has learned from and admired, for the first time as he displays his work to the 50,000 guests at TwitchCon, an annual convention dedicated to the streaming platform in its namesake. This year and for the second time since the convention began in 2015, it will be held in San Diego.
Kuhnke will join 95 other artists in the convention’s Artist Alley, the area sequestered for artists of all kinds who live stream their process to the world. Like the other artists being showcased, Kuhnke needed to apply for a slot at the convention that has drawn the likes of Shaquille O’Neal as well as other celebrities inside and outside the world of streaming. This year, Kuhnke said, there were over 300 applicants.
Almost a year ago, Kuhnke began learning his artistic process from one of the streamers who will be situated at the convention. Next weekend, Kuhke is going to be set up in the stall immediately adjacent to that very same streamer.
“It’s a little mind-blowing. It’s a little surreal, but I’m looking forward to it,” Kuhnke said. “Some people do little art fairs, and then they get an idea of how to do it. I haven’t done an art fair, and now I’m going to a convention with 50,000 people.”
Many streamers find their livelihood on Twitch, but for Kuhnke, his art is anything but work. That’s because painting pets is something near and dear to his heart.
Kuhnke’s dog Missy, a black Lab, passed away right around the same time he began painting pets. He had been painting since his time in the Belle Plaine High School art room where he worked under the tutelage of the locally renowned Carrol Hannon-Orr, but painting pets became something personal after he watched Missy’s health decline over the latter part of her life. Kuhnke stated that he dedicated an immense amount of time to Missy during her later years, and he feels pets have a unique ability to connect with human emotions.
So Kuhnke decided to dedicate his project to Missy in a public way because she “loved meeting new people.”
“If I can paint a picture of somebody’s pet that meant even just a tenth of what my dog meant to me, then that is just incredible for me to be able to do that for somebody,” Kuhnke said.
Kuhnke’s followers know who Missy was and what she meant to him because he speaks candidly about the dog he has painted multiple times over. Streamers on Twitch also have the opportunity to customize their channels with graphics and custom loading screens and notification for viewers. For instance, if Kuhnke gets a new subscriber, footage of Missy will roll across viewers’ screens and “Who Let the Dogs Out” by Baha Men begins playing.
“Missy loved the cold outside even she was like, ‘No, this is ridiculous,’” Kuhnke said during a discussion about a particularly cold Minnesota day during one of his streams.
Kuhnke stated that his channel has become a place for people to relax, share pet stories and generally spend time with one another. Presently, people from all over the world, including parts of Canada and Thailand, tune into the Freakmeister1 channel. One of his followers, an “unofficial protégé” earned the moniker the “pup-prentice,” after continually asking Kuhnke for pet painting advice.
“People will always tell me that when they tune into my stream that it’s the best part of their day,” Kuhke said. “I’m always just really happy to be able to do that for somebody.”
While he streams, Kuhnke sits in front of what his followers know as “The Dog Wall,” an assemblage of evenly sized pet portraits that fills his bedroom wall. Kuhnke stated that he does not believe that the internet will be strong enough to stream from the convention, but he will do everything he can to bring the dog wall with him.