Creating With Cats: An Unintentional Life’s WorkPosted: October 15, 2011
If you are of a certain age you will …well, you may remember the rock group “Santana” and the cover of their eponymous album, “Santana”. This cover featured an ink line drawing of a roaring lion which, on closer inspection, was actually composed of sketches of many other subjects worked together to create the features of the lion’s face and mane. You’ll just have to look it up, because any further description ruins the surprise.
And I’m sure he gets tired of being compared to it, but the art of Chaz Letzkus takes this technique way beyond what you can see in the Santana album cover, though a roaring lion wouldn’t be out of place in his gallery. Of course, he draws cats, and, in fact, one of his most popular drawings is “Cat’s Tale”.
Above, so it’s big enough to see, is “Cat’s Tale”, one of several drawings featuring cats he’s got in his repertoire. I’ve made it as large as possible so you can see some of the details, and below are detail images of each of the cats’ faces. Look closely…
At festivals, Chaz’s table is usually surrounded by people who take a quick look, then look again, then stop and look closely at all of his drawings to see what’s there. That’s the fun of them! I’ve also seen them in several veterinarian’s offices around Pittsburgh, and what better to take your mind off being at the vet than an ink drawing where cats keep materializing that takes your mind off the issue at hand?
Chaz’s gallery includes not only cats but all sorts of animals domestic and wild as he began with his love of wild animals, continued with his years of working at Carnegie Museums in Pittsburgh, hanging around all those models and displays in the Museum of Natural History and taking advantage of all of Pittsburgh’s other creative assets.
If you’re in Ohio, West Virginia or Pennsylvania you may have seen him at any number of festivals and shows in and around the tri-state area. This is where I usually see Chaz, swapping stories and art and display tips as we both attend a festivals around Pittsburgh as vendors as well as participate in art exhibits, though he is much busier than me as far as events.
In fact, he was far too busy for me to do a studio interview as I prefer. He was packing for an early morning return for the weekend at Christmas in the Woods at Shaker Woods in Columbiana, OH. For an artist who lives on vending at festivals and events this is the busiest time of year—a show every weekend from August through December, some of them as long as five days. Perhaps I can visit his studio after the holidays when he’s actually home for a while.
Roundabout career development
It’s an interesting turn of events for a person who has a degree in Economics from the University of Pittsburgh and decades of managerial and executive experience in marketing.
“I’ve always liked to draw,” he said, “but I was also good in math and science. My middle-class parents said, ‘You can always draw as a hobby, but you should be an engineer or something else to use your math or science skills.’ So I started as an engineering major.”
After graduation in the early 70s he found a job as a cost analyst for US Steel in Pittsburgh. “But it wasn’t me—I was a real hippie, and after I visited a friend in Southern California I decided to move there and I ended up in Laguna Beach for six years.” Starting with a job as a nanny and odd jobs, he took classes in cartooning and graphic design at a small college and began drawing again, “working on a children’s book and my tan.”
“This was also where I met Maurice, who had six toes, and later orange and white Goldie and watched her stalk the lizards, and that’s when I really got into cats and began studying them,” he said.
He moved to Los Angeles to manage a multi-media theater for ABC Television called The Hollywood Experience, but he missed his family and his native Pittsburgh—“Go Steelers, Go Pirates, Go Penguins, Go Panthers, Go Home.”
Not seeing snow for six years, he spent the winter cooped up inside and began drawing again. It was during this time he did his first two hidden animal drawings, “Elephancy” and “Just say RhiNO” (remember “Just Say No”?). From this point until 1999 when he attended his first Three Rivers Arts Festival, as he married, became a father and developed his professional career, he slowly developed his style and his portfolio, creating many of the images he still sells today.
How the drawings come to be
So where does he start with one of these drawings? In a lot of ways it begins with his marketing background—he usually comes up with a catchy title based on a characteristic of the animal, then does some research.
His career included working in Group Sales and Marketing for Carnegie Science Center in Pittsburgh, then advancing to that position for all four of the Carnegie Museums, including the Museum of Art, Museum of Natural History, Science Center and The Warhol, and he worked in conjunction with all of Pittsburgh’s other assets like the Zoo, the Aviary, Phipps Conservatory, all natural resources for his drawings.
“I’m a big book person, and I’ll go to the library and use my own library, read about the animal, decide on the pose and create the basic outlines of it with just a few details and decide what to hide in it,” he explained. This often includes not only images of the animal itself but also its relatives, enemies and elements of its habitat.”
And about five years ago on a whim he began including a sketch of his own face in the drawing somewhere so people can also “find Chaz” in each of his latest drawings.
He draws the outline in pencil, then starts sketching in the hidden figures, fitting one against another until it’s balanced and he likes the pencil sketch. Out comes the Rotring Rapidograph pen, point size .13, and he draws the final drawing right on top of the pencil drawing, cleans up the remaining pencil lines, then it’s good to go. All of his drawings fit into an 11” x 14” format.
“I started with the animals I liked a lot, big animals, jungle animals,” he said. As he started going to small shows he kept a list of what people were requesting, which included pets.
An extension of the family
“Cat’s Tail” was always one of his most popular, as well as “Horsing Around”, and he feels it’s because these are animals we have a special bond with.
“Animals are an extension of our families, and people see their own pet’s antics in my drawings,” he said, though noted it’s funny how a person’s career or other interests can affect their preference for a drawing.
“I just had a show at a hospital where I hung nearly all my prints,” he said. “ ‘Cat Scan’ sold better in the hospital but I don’t think it’s as good a drawing because it only has 43 cats in it where ‘Cat’s Tail’ has 80, but I guess it’s kind of an ‘inside joke’,” he laughed
He has also had “Puppy Love” for quite a while, but discovered that people who have dogs usually want art that resembles the breed of dog they have, or its size and characteristics if it’s a mutt, something he and I have discussed and tried to resolve—how do we meet the needs of dog people without drawing every single breed?
This past February he did some research on popular breeds and read about their characteristics, and came up with eight sketches of dogs to satisfy customers looking for dog art. So far, “Pug-nacious” and “Hot Dog” are popular, but “The Good Shepherd” is the one people like best.
In addition, he customizes the art at no extra cost, hiding the name of a person or a business in a print a customer purchases.
At a recent show in Westmoreland County, one of the volunteers asked him to add her cats’ names to “Cat’s Tail”…her 13 cats. “Sure,” he said, “we’re both here all day.” It did take some time to work them all into the design.
His own pets
Chaz grew up with dogs and his brother had the whole list of childhood pets in guinea pigs and rabbits, snakes and turtles and so on, but Chaz has gotten his fix for cats and dogs and other pets from other people in his life through the years. He and his wife never got around to adding a pet to their life with their daughter, and now that Chaz is divorced and living by himself as well as being away at shows half the weekends of every year he’s hesitant to adopt. “I can take care of things and make it since it’s only me, but I’m not comfortable being responsible for anyone else right now,” he said.
“I try to get my animal fix where I can,” he said, in playing with the neighbor’s dog and visiting his sister’s dogs.
And then there’s Sammie from up the street. “He’s a really pretty orange and white cat and he’s very friendly with all the neighbors,” he said. “He tries to open my door so I let him in and he likes his scratches first and he purrs and purrs and purrs, then he walks around the house as if he owns it.” After spending some time inspecting, napping and getting his scratches, Sammie sits by the door. “I know he has to make his rounds, so I let him go on to the next neighbor,” Chaz laughs.
And he certainly got along well with my cats when he was here to talk about websites and printing our artwork.
The cat art in particular
In addition to “Cat’s Tail” and “Cat Scan”, Chaz also has “Kitten Caboodle”, and he’s planning another cat drawing called “Cat-astrophe” with a bunch of kittens getting into trouble.
“Cat people are generally happy with a sketch that looks like a cat, even if its markings don’t resemble their cat,” he said. Cat breeds are varied, but not as much as dog breeds, he and I agreed, and we tend to recognize the basic silhouettes of head and ears, legs and tail as feline.
“And I’ve really enjoyed studying feline habits in order to decide on the next one—‘Cat-astrophe’ is going to be fun!” he said
About doing shows
Chaz had been doing shows and festivals for a good ten years when his last job as marketing for a hotel dissolved in 2008 as the hotel was badly managed, and he decided at that point to pick up the pace with events and see if he could make a living with it, especially since he’s in the “AARP age group”.
“It’s hard for an older person to find a job that equals the skill and salary they were making if they are laid off,” he said. “If I didn’t have my artistic ability I’d be in the same place a lot of these older people are who lost jobs and are looking.”
This year he equaled in gross receipts and sales what had been his annual salary in 2008.
“It’s a lot of work especially for the second half of the year,” he said. “And there was one time at Penn’s Colony, the colonial era outdoor festival where everyone dresses in colonial fashions and has a little ‘shoppe’ instead of a tent, that I was sitting there in heavy stockings and woolen britches and a big puffy cotton shirt and tri-corner hat—in 95 degree heat—and realized it was Labor Day weekend and other people were having cookouts and such and decided I’d have to be a little more selective.
“People say to me, ‘Oh, you must be retired,’ as if I’m doing this for fun,” he said. “I did 24 shows in three states last year, I carry buckets of concrete to hold my tent down for exercise, set up and tear down in the dark, sit around in the rain, sometimes I’m away for days at a time.”
But Chaz’s naturally garrulous personality serves him as well in this as it did in marketing.
“But I never get tired of people telling me how great I am and how they love my art! And meeting people and talking to them is the best part of it,” he continued. “My art is unique and I still envision the next level of success as a possibility.”
Where to find his art
He sells his art as matted or framed prints in various standard sizes, and as sets of 5” x 7” notecards. He publishes a calendar every year featuring 12 sketches, a few new ones and a few old ones, and even has a few of his works available as puzzles and posters.
Visit his website at www.chazmania.com for more information, to see more drawings and to purchase as well. He had a few problems with the website this past year; the company that owned the server disappeared and so did his website, but last month it reappeared and he found another company had bought all the assets of the old company. He’s still catching up with adding some of his newer drawings. Also, the shopping cart doesn’t work, and you need to call or e-mail with orders at the moment. He’s not sure if that will be resolved by the holidays.