Seeing Mimi settling down near Peaches’ portrait reminded me of another instance of a cat communicating with one of my portraits.
I usually keep in touch with the family for whom I’ve created a portrait. We’ve often done quite a bit of work determining the exact posture and scene for a portrait, gathering images and sometimes I paint purely from visualizing what my customer is describing. Also, nearly half my portraits have been memorials, created either after the animal has passed or around the time of its passing, and working out the details of the portrait include working through a certain portion of the family’s grief.
Besides that, we came together to do their portrait because we love animals, and that’s a natural friendship. I often hear news of the household, the arrivals of new animal companions and the passing of others, and stories of the household in general.
In the months after I finished Cooper’s portrait, I received a call from his family to tell me the sad news that they had lost Patches to complications from polyps she had developed in one ear.
Patches and Cooper had been best buddies. Cooper had passed about a year before I painted his portrait, and when it was finished and we hung it over the couch, I met Patches and the other kitties they had rescued and adopted, inspired by their love of Cooper.
Soon after, Patches showed signs of illness, but it took a number of tests to find the polyps. They were inoperable, and while her family eagerly tried a number of standard medical treatments as well as naturopathic treatments, all too soon she was losing her battle.
They told me that just days before Patches died, even though she was weak and declining quickly, one evening she climbed up on the back of the couch, sat up and gently touched the glass over Cooper’s face in the portrait, looked at him for a short while, then carefully got down.
“Was she saying, ‘There you are,’ or ‘I’m coming, I’ll see you soon,’ we don’t know,” they commented. “After that, she seemed to accept what was happening to her.”
Anyone who has lived with animals knows that they communicate with us as well as with each other, and that they experience the same range of emotions as we do, including love and grief.
When I create a piece of artwork, any subject, I not only work with the images I have and the medium I’ve chosen, but I also instill what I would be sensing if I was standing in that spot, and what I’m feeling about the subject, all as if I was experiencing it in that moment.
When the subject is one of my animal portraits I also consider the relationship between the animal or animals and their family while I’m working, either through observation or from what they’ve related to me.
In the case of Cooper’s portrait, I had received a call from someone saying he had one photo of his girlfriend’s cat who had passed the previous year and he’d like to give her a portrait of him for the anniversary of his passing and her birthday, which were close—and also a little over a month away. It was possible to paint and finish, mat and frame a portrait in that time, but as I still worked a day job with a lot of variables I usually wouldn’t risk it, except that he had given the same photo to another artist who had not gotten the portrait done and still felt strongly that the portrait was what she needed to have.
This could be tricky—not only would I not be able to meet Cooper, nor would I be able to meet his person or see the household or have any other connection with my subject other than this one photo, and the portrait was fairly large, 22″ x 17″. But though he only had the one photo, he was generous with stories about Cooper and the household, and very much emotionally invested in the project himself.
We did meet the deadline, and in that concentrated period I spent a good bit of time considering what he’d told me about Cooper and the household.
I know that depth was invested in the portrait itself, showing in a physical manner—I always say that I paint until my subjects look back at me—and perhaps in a spiritual manner as well, recognizable by both humans and animals. My families will tell me that, though I’ve often thought it was the confused musings of someone who stayed up too late and spent too much time alone with my painting.
Cooper’s story is this:
Cooper had literally been born in a barn but was adopted to a friend of the farm owner who cared deeply for his barn cats including the occasional drop-offs and strays. Cooper lived happily with his mom for three years as she moved from Pittsburgh to Philadelphia and became engaged to a man who was dangerously allergic to cats. Though they tried treatments his reaction was life-threatening and she carefully began the process of finding a home for her precious Cooper. The same farmer put her in contact with Cooper’s eventual mom, who had recently divorced and bought a house but resisted the idea of a pet. On a trip to Philly for a conference she met Cooper, enjoyed the visit, but said no. After a week alone in her house, she called the woman back and said she needed Cooper’s company. Cooper was chauffeured back across the state to his new forever home.
Cooper’s portrait and rescue story are featured in Great Rescues Calendar and Gift Book.
Each family for whom I have created a portrait also has a continuing story and so much to tell, like this story of Patches and Cooper. This family has continued to rescue other cats, including Simon, and I’ll have more stories to tell about their family of cats ranging from those comfortably indoors to those who visit the feeding stations outdoors and use the carefully constructed shelters in the winter.
This scene gave me pause the other day; in the moment I saw Mimi by Peaches’ portrait I knew there was a bond being lovingly observed.
I’m finishing the process of setting up my spare-bedroom studio as a clean, bright and organized work space, finally at the point of hanging art on the walls. “Peaches and Peonies” has been in my shop at Carnegie Antiques for the past year because I had no good place to hang her portrait here. I happily decided that Peaches should come home to be a part of this dedication to my career as an artist, so I can study the painting and continue to draw inspiration from it, and so that Peaches can watch over me as I work.
I leaned the painting in a safe spot against the wall, then left for a while.
When I came back, there was Mimi, relaxing in a beam of sunlight, in front of Peaches’ portrait. I wondered briefly if Mimi only found this quiet sunny spot to have a bath and a nap—in a room where she rarely goes unless she follows me, and through a habit she rarely observes in sleeping on the floor.
Even though I know the portrait is only an inanimate object, that it’s questionable if Mimi can clearly see or would recognize the scene in a painting, and all cats, including Mimi, are drawn to little beams of sunlight for relaxation, I knew there was no coincidence.
She stayed for quite some time, until the sunlight faded, and I would not interrupt the moment, enjoying also a moment of my own. Peaches, as well as every other cat who has come to me in any way since I’ve lived in this house, began their life with me in that room, some ended their lives in that room too, and even with the total transformation the room will always carry memories for me and I’m sure all the cats too.
I remember too
I have been remembering my sweet Peaches since last October, little reminders every day in this first year after her passing, remembering her daily habits so intertwined with mine, her quiet and pleasant personality, her petite beauty. Browsing my photos in their daily folders, there she is in almost every one, having a bath, enjoying the sunshine, coaxing me out of bed to feed her breakfast, interacting with the other cats—especially Giuseppe, who very lovingly cared for her, and the Fantastic Four in general.
I also remember the simple moments that aren’t in any photographs, the tactile memories that are such an integral part of our relationship with our animal companions. I remember the particular soft plush of her fur, short but thick, as she would lift her face and bump her nose against my hand as I would start on her forehead and run my hand down her back, and the way her tail would swing straight up as my hand reached her hips so I could bump against it, then start again at her forehead, feeling her purr growing more resonant with each stroke. I remember the small rounded weight of her body, like a little pear, as she reclined on my lap each evening for a vigorous and complete after-dinner bath, her legs and tail and head emerging in front of me, then her process of turning around and around and around in both directions in preparation for sleep as I tried to work around her.
And as the season and fruits of July are fresh, I thought of Peaches as I placed my fresh local peaches in a bowl, remembering the nicknames of “my little Peach pit”, “my little Georgia Peach,” “my sweet Peach”, and every other variation on peach I made up just for her.
The memories are as sweet as she was, even the memories of assisting her through the months of renal failure, the more frequent doses of sub-q fluids, the variable appetite, the nausea and her increasing discomfort. I remember that brief part of her life less as time goes on, finding instead that I remember the way she looked at me, with total devotion, and smiling in this moment at the memory of her guileless, honest expression.
I’ll admit, also, something I don’t miss at all, and laugh when I remember…for whatever reason, Peaches never cared for the litterbox, instead choosing an inconvenient spot somewhere, which she changed frequently. She came to me at 15, her owner had died, and I have no idea what her history was, but as soon as I eased her back into the habit of using the box, she would begin to experiment with other areas. In the months after she passed, I also laughed to myself as I replaced stained old throw rugs with the better ones I’d packed away, well, until Peaches was no longer around to use them.
And I am looking at how much my household has changed and rearranged; I had the three senior tri-color girls at my desk all day, but now just Cookie and Kelly, and even they spend part of their days in other sleeping places. I have a completely different wake-up committee. And I lost the only light-colored kitty in my household—now with five black cats and two torties it’s sometimes a challenge to distinguish one cat from another in my photos.
It’s all a process of the acceptance of loss, which is a part of the acceptance of change, the constant change that is a part of life. I may feel a twinge of sadness, or feel tears well at a memory, but this is the process we all mention when someone loses someone they love, that time heals all wounds, that the pain you feel is replaced by the love you will always carry. Each of these encounters helps to heal over a little bit more as the philosopher’s stone of the alchemist it turns the base metal of pain to the gold of loving memory, which is truly the elixir of everlasting life.
You can read more about Peaches by simply searching this blog for “Peaches”—you’ll find quite a lot, especially photos! You can also reference the series of articles I wrote in 2010 as she was about to turn 20 and we celebrated her “100th birthday” which are linked in the article It’s Peaches’ 100th Birthday!
A note about “Peaches and Peonies”
I learned that “Peaches and Peonies” had won a Certificate of Excellence as a Single Illustration used as a greeting card in the Cat Writers’ Association annual communications contest two days after Peaches died in October 2010. The painting went on to win a Muse Medallion in that category, which I have hanging on the painting. Since I couldn’t make it to last year’s conference, thanks to Ingrid King who thoughtfully took this photo for me to keep!
I also sell prints of “Peaches and Peonies” with a donation to benefit senior pet adoption programs and tell Peaches’ story to encourage people to adopt senior pets. Read about the Senior Pet Adoption Donation Program.