When you are a “cat person”, it seems to begin with day one and work its way all through your life to the end, with cats intertwined with everything in between.
Cleaning out, renovating and organizing my spare bedroom into my studio has unearthed more works from my development as an artist. I first published a shorter version of this post last May as over the Memorial Day weekend I was reorganizing my house after moving my mother into a skilled nursing unit, sorting through boxes from her storage unit. In addition to my own boxes of papers and mementos I’ve been sorting things I found in boxes from her house, sold years ago but which I neglected to review until now last year, and some of what I’ve found in all this has given me surprising smiles. I had no idea people knew I was a “cat person” even before I had a cat!
Some of these items either gave me encouragement to love kitties, or they inspired me in some way as an artist. I also have an extensive collection of cat figurines given to me as gifts in those early years even before I had a cat, but I’ll cover that another day! For now, remembering those early years is a treasure in itself.
So looking at a few of the things I’ve found, here’s an interesting perspective on how I got to where I am as a keeper of cats and as an artist.
Sometimes things happen in our lives that move us along in ways that seem totally unrelated to the incident. I found this to be true in my early years of attempting to develop myself as an artist as job and schedule and relationship changes buffeted me about and I found myself turning increasingly to creating artwork to fill the void and give myself at least that in my life as a constant. I often wonder if I would have progressed apace if I hadn’t had these nudges and shoves.
Often that catalyst is a loss of some sort, the passing of a loved one or a change that leaves an open spot in our lives which eventually we must fill in order to heal. In the autumn of 1996 I lost two of my cats two weeks apart, but discovered my love for painting my familiar local landscapes en plein air and also began painting still lifes and I know in no small part their spirits led me to this.
It was something about the flowing curved shape he made as he swung around to begin washing his shoulder and hip, from his nose up over his forehead and around and over his back, and continuing around and around to the very tip of his tail. Of all the things he did I seemed to love this best, this twirling juggernaut of happy feline energy and all the other minor curves and rounded shapes in the posture, the rounded torso balanced lightly on the surface, the tail curled in a circle.
I continually sketched this shape trying to catch just that line of energy, thereby developing a minimalistic style rendered in black on white, then for a sculpture class did my best to translate that minimalism into a 3-D composition.
Many years ago a certain black kitty who rescued me while I was in college inspired me to many things aside from loving him and the practice of rescuing cats. Cats in general, and he in particular, began appearing in my creative efforts as I moved through my classes in college.
I have known many cats in my life but none as simply graceful as him perhaps because he was my awakening to feline fluidity, and I found myself then trying to describe his grace in even the simplest of movements in words and image, a short story, a poem, an animated film, and this sculpture. And like this sculpture, I also learned ways of managing lines on paper and putting words in a certain order that could efficiently describe what I was visualizing. What a number of gifts for one cat to give.
The project was to design a simple shape that could be cast using a two- or three-piece latex mold. We initially created the object in plasticine clay and used that as the basis for creating the mold, painting the latex onto it and letting it dry, then since latex was flexible we added something on the outside to help it keep its shape (sorry, after 30-odd years don’t remember what that was). The last step was to cut it into the pieces that could be easily put back together, the seams sealed shut, and something such as plaster of Paris poured into it. When the plaster was set, the mold would be taken apart, leaving the cast sculpture which would then be trimmed, sanded and polished if necessary.
I only made one and I have no idea where the latex mold ended up (I may yet find it somewhere here), but this plaster sculpture has moved with me over a dozen times, always on display not only because I was proud of my accomplishment but because it reminded me of Kublai’s grace.
I managed to catch the angle of his head as he turned, and I added some soft and some acute edges and flat areas that defined planes and that would catch the light, that described the smaller curves, and that finally helped to carry the larger curve along that minimalistic line.
I might have wanted to make a few changes to it even then, and I see the same ones now. For one, while Kublai did have a triangular face as most cats do, and as he had a fairly rounded head and face it tended to look like a wider triangle, I think it’s too heavy and too wide in this sculpture. I may have brought the curve between his ears farther down onto his forehead, and this would have enhanced the position of his ears, folded back as they do when they are bathing.
I would also have loosened up the curl of his tail, making it rounder, and even possibly made the roundness of his torso wider to accommodate the curl, and weighted a little more to the left to counterbalance the weight of his face and further enhance the curve.
This is painted with matte black designer spray paint, though you can see some of the inconsistencies in the finish. I wasn’t as patient as I could have been with sanding and polishing the plaster, and now, lest I sand off all the paint and start again, it is the way it is.
Manner of creation, or how I got from there to here, in part
Of course, all these judgments are made after the fact. I don’t plan things out in that logical way before I start working, not then or now. An idea begins to build and I visualize it to the point that I can see what would be the final version of it, then begin to work. I may make some logical decisions while I work, but for the most part I just keep that visualization fresh in mind and keep working until what I have is what I see.
Back in the day, I did most of my visual expression in more abstract terms, enjoying just the composition of a non-objective work, the interplay of shapes and colors, and I worked frequently in 3-D, but I was not visualizing entirely in the abstract. While I could and did render the abstract ideas I had, I could not render the more realistic ideas. In short, I could not draw to save my life, and I not only desperately wanted to, I also needed to show more skill than I had in order to pass those drawing and painting classes if I continued with my major in art.
Despite some successes—I did occasionally produce a sketch that looked something like the model in our drawing classes—I didn’t feel confident that I could do well enough in my classes to graduate well. I was also taking complimentary classes to earn a degree in Art Education, but didn’t feel I could teach it all that well either, feeling such a lack of confidence. I really just felt that I could do better, but I just wasn’t getting there no matter what I did.
Although I continued to take art classes, focusing them on design, I changed my major to English and focused on writing which was what I had wanted to do in the first place, though I was encouraged by my high school teachers to consider studying art and figured they knew best—and they did, it just took me a little longer to get to the place where I could develop my skills. More than a decade later, coming home from work late at night to greet my kitties, there it was.
The original sketch
And as I keep every artifact from everything I do—because I find I use these things later—here is the original sketch on a little slip of paper, drawn in water-based magic marker way, way back. It’s nearly all faded now, but long ago I had made a copy of it and converted it into the line art you see above. It’s one of many that I did and tossed until I came to this one and decided I’d finally gotten it right.
I had it taped to things around my desk for years, on my phone, on a bookshelf on the front of a drawer, and more recently on my computer monitor. It’s got coffee and water and, knowing my Stanley, probably a little cat pee on it, and a good sample of various cat hairs through the years stuck on the tape. But for all that and for its origin, I just can’t give it up, though now I keep it in an envelope in my desk drawer.
The photo from above
And just because I’ve always like the photo above, I’m featuring it as today’s daily cat photo.
And another thing
I forgot to mention that my profile image on Facebook, LinkedIn and a few other places, a sketch of me holding a cat, is called “Self-portrait with Kublai”. I sketched it when I participated in an art exhibit with the Pittsburgh Society of Illustrators and needed an image of myself to include in the catalog; most of us either had or decided to do self-portraits.
As the summer wore on in the months before Kublai died, I had a friend take a few photos of us, and as Kublai was in the final stages of some wasting illness I was shocked at what he looked like in the photos. I decided that I liked the pose, but I’d paint him in the way I had been picturing him. I never got around to the painting and unfortunately didn’t have the time when the exhibit came up, but I quickly did a little sketch of us for the show catalog.