Credit: Elizabeth Tuten

District Derp, an online art gallery that gifts cannabis products when customers purchase prints of dog-created paintings, started with a bet. “My friend said, ‘You can train the dog to roll over, but I bet you can’t train her to do something really cool,’ co-founder Chris explains. “So we asked, ‘Well, what would be impressive enough for you?’ and he said ‘painting.’”  

In just a few weeks, he had trained Sudo, his Alaskan Klee Kai, to paint. Capitalizing on her love of sticks, Chris drilled a hole in a short, thick wooden dowel and super glued a paintbrush into the hole. Sudo loved holding her new toy in her mouth, but the challenge was getting her to touch the brush to the canvas. With the command “paint” and no shortage of treats (salami is a favorite), Chris soon had Sudo adding a loaded paintbrush to her mouth and bringing it to a canvas propped on a child’s easel set on a bottom stair in the row house he shares with his partner in life and business, Anais. Sudo was creating strokes and dots with acrylic paint. 

Her work is varied. The painting titled “Simply Sudo” features her pawprints in contrasting neons, while “Jovial Nature” uses District Derp’s brand color palette, with swipes of gold and green. According to the online store, the dense “Clash” is Sudo’s magnum opus, “an abstract portrayal of our current political climate.” The prints can be purchased without an accompanying gift, for those who find art to be inspiration enough.

Sudo’s talent bloomed in early 2018, the same time Chris and Anais had started sourcing cannabis from different D.C. delivery services to mitigate their struggles with anxiety and panic attacks. “We were much more interested in using plant medicine instead of benzos, and we were just really unhappy with the quality of the delivery services that were out there,” Anais says. “They couldn’t vouch for the quality of their product; they didn’t let you know what strain you were buying or what to expect from it, which is super important when you’re trying to address something specific. On top of that, the customer service was horrible.” 

Chris and Anais quickly tired of late delivery people, miscommunication, and the game of chance that came with unidentified strains of cannabis. “We knew we could do a better job,” says Anais. Fueled by those negative delivery experiences and their desire to treat their anxiety naturally, the pair combined a shared interest in the science of cannabis, Anais’ passion for baking, and Sudo’s new artistic talent to create District Derp. The website went live in November of 2018. 

Chris, Anais, and their clients asked not to use their last names because of the stigma they believe is still associated with selling and using cannabis. Both Chris and Anais still work day jobs: Chris is a software engineer at a financial institution, and Anais is a project manager at an international NGO. They hope that future legislation will legalize the licensed and regulated retail distribution of recreational cannabis. This would allow them to step out more publicly as business owners and cannabis advocates. 

They’re hyper-conscious of staying above-board. “We started diving into a compliant business model—the logistics of staying legal,” Chris says of District Derp’s beginnings. It took two specialized attorneys, two accountants, a business advisor, and a creative director to ensure that everything from the books to the website copy was in keeping with the District’s Initiative 71 gifting model for the sharing of cannabis. Chris and Anais were also determined to keep their business local, sourcing cannabis from regional master growers who tend to the couple’s seeds on their behalf.   

All of District Derp’s products are double-tested with both an in-home chemical testing kit and a process called thin-layer chromatography, which tracks the movements of colored water droplets on chromatography paper to test potency, terpenoid profile, and THC to CBD ratio. Once they can confirm that the batch doesn’t have trace amounts of pesticides or debris, they package the loose bud or put it into edibles, all of which come in varying strains and amounts. They’re then given as gifts based on which of Sudo’s paintings a customer selects from the online gallery. 

Anais creates all of the edibles in their home kitchen, tweaking recipes until “it’s something you’d want to eat even if there wasn’t cannabis in it,” she says. She hosts parties for friends to try out and give feedback on new recipes and tinkers with dosage until she can confidently tell consumers exactly what to expect from their treat. Exacting standards and transparency around product production are what the couple hopes will set District Derp apart as the D.C. cannabis industry grows. That, and the painting dog. 

Sudo looks like a mini-wolf. She’s charming, bumbling, and exceptionally soft. She takes about 15 to 20 minutes to create a painting, which includes salami breaks and a showering of pets and praise. Chris and Anais pick the color schemes and will sometimes place a makeshift stencil on the canvas to create negative space amid Sudo’s brushstrokes. The result is a modern canine spin on abstract expressionism, which has made unexpected art collectors out of District Derp clients. 

Scott and Jade, two of Sudo’s buyers, both say they’ve been seeking out a reliable cannabis source to quell anxiety and depression that prescription medication doesn’t always adequately assuage. They do, however, have differing opinions on Sudo’s best work. Jade likes the purple and yellow of “Mardi Gras,” a muddy, impressionistic take on Pollock, while Scott prefers the simplicity of modern, minimalist “Noir.” They each have all of Sudo’s available prints. Jade gifts duplicates to friends. “The idea that you’re buying paintings from a dog is hilarious,” she says. 

But it’s the high quality cannabis and the customer service that made both Scott and Jade repeat customers. 

“As someone who’s smoked not-high-quality-product, I can confidently say this is a high quality product,” says Scott, a finance and accounting recruiter. “I haven’t seen anything like them in D.C. This is the best customer service I’ve had, even when I was buying from friends. They’ll tell you about the painting, like what kind of mood Sudo was in when she made it.”

Sudo and her work are helping to facilitate Chris and Anais’ relationships in the local arts community. District Derp was a sponsor of POW! WOW! international mural festival’s stop in D.C. this past spring, and they’re on the lookout for new opportunities to support and partner with local art events. 

There’s no brick-and-mortar gallery space for Sudo’s art yet. But Chris and Anais envision a future community gathering space and dispensary where customers can sit, stay, view her paintings in person, and learn about cannabis.

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