GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — There’s a special bond between police officers and the K-9s they partner with: They train together, live together and often retire together.

“They touch so many lives just in their everyday interaction,” Kent County Sheriff’s Department Deputy Krystal Stuart said.

So it was with Stuart and her K-9 partner Axel, who spent more than two years together. Then in August 2021, Axel was doing what he did best — tracking a home invasion suspect — when he collapsed and later died from an undiagnosed heart problem.

Axel’s death brought an outpouring of support from the community and inspired artist Kathie Van Hekken.

“When I heard of his passing, it just broke my heart,” Van Hekken said. “I wait for inspiration to hit, and then when it does it’s like it comes out of nowhere, and that’s what this did.”

She entered a portrait of Axel into ArtPrize 2022. The pencil drawing is displayed at First Park Congregational on East Park Place in downtown Grand Rapids.

It took Hekken about seven months to complete the piece. She worked off photos and description provided by Stuart to capture Axel’s personality: twinkling eyes and a prominent tongue.

“It takes a lot of layers to get the look that you see here,” Van Hekken described the process. “I sketched in the mouth and all of the sudden, ‘Oh, hello Axel. Now I know you.’ And I cried.”

A portrait of late Kent County Sheriff's Department K-9 Axel, created by Kathie Van Hekken, is displayed at First Park Congregational Church for ArtPrize. (Sept. 21, 2022)
A portrait of late Kent County Sheriff’s Department K-9 Axel, created by Kathie Van Hekken, is displayed at First Park Congregational Church for ArtPrize. (Sept. 21, 2022)

“The biggest complement that I can get is when people who knew Axel tell me that I got his personality, and I’ve heard that a few times,” Van Hekken continued.

One of those compliments came from Stuart.

Deputy Krystal Stuart looks at a portrait of her late K-9 partner Axel, which was entered in ArtPrize 2022. (Sept. 21, 2022)
Deputy Krystal Stuart stands in front of a portrait of her late K-9 partner Axel, which was entered in ArtPrize 2022. (Sept. 21, 2022)

“When I walk in here and I see that, it’s just… It’s amazing,” Stuart said. “It’s really touching to me that somebody would take so much time and so much dedication with their talent to bring my dog basically almost back to life.”

K-9 units are expensive. Kent County’s program relies a lot on donations. If you visit First Park Congregational, you can pick up an artist’s card for “K-9 Axel,” which has a QR code on the back directing you to where you can donate.