“Holly was my first and only kitten,” Judi told me. “All my cats were adults that I rescued or adopted. She was a real treat—I’d never seen the energy of a kitten.”
Holly was about six weeks old when Judi’s partner Don brought her home in the cereal box and is a featured rescue kitty in Great Rescues:
Holly’s dad was working on his apartment building in a small town 50 miles from his home and noticed a tiny kitten, maybe five weeks old, running from under the porch at the house next door; apparently they were just letting a new litter run the streets until they decided what to do with them. He put milk out for the kitten as she visited the back stairway, then went next door to confirm the kittens belonged to them, asking if he could adopt the little calico, to which they agreed.
He took her into an apartment and fed her there, took her to the local vet for a checkup and kept her with him for about 2 weeks as he worked on the building. The neighbor stopped him in the driveway a few days later and said she had promised the kitten to her sister. Holly’s dad immediately replied that he had already given her a new home in Pittsburgh, 50 miles away, and she was no longer available. Later, he secreted Holly out hidden in a cereal box and brought her home.
“She got along with everybody. They were all equally annoyed with her kitten games—but Houdini took to it right away,” she continued.
And that would be very special for Judi; Houdini was then 19 years old, and he had been her first cat, ever, in a lifetime of rescuing cats. At that age, she knew they wouldn’t be together too much longer. “Holly kept him playing like a kitten in his last year,” she said.
Separately and then together, Judi and Don have rescued at least a dozen cats, and it’s always interesting to find out how serial cat rescuers got their start. Often, it begins with just one very special cat, and many other cats’ lives are ultimately saved because of the loving relationship between that cat and that person. For now, we’ll focus on the story of Judi and the cat who started it all for her.
So how does a person who’s never lived with a cat end up with a cat like Houdini? And with a name like that you know there’s got to be a story.
“I had just bought my house, and I decided, ‘This is my first house, I’m buying it by myself, and I’m going to get a cat’,” Judi stated. Those three activities might not seem entirely congruous to some people, but getting your own place is often the time people adopt their first pet.
While a cat was Judi’s choice for a pet, it was her friend Joanie, already a cat owner, who took her to the Animal Rescue League where Joanie herself had adopted her three cats.
But Judi would say the rest of it was up to Houdini.
“He picked me,” she said simply. “We walked past all the cages and he was laying on his back reaching his paws out through the bars at me. He was about a year and a half old, not a kitten. Everything in his cage was upside down—litter, water, food. I wanted him so badly, but I had to wait three days,” she remembered, referring to the fact that he had been brought into the shelter as a stray and the shelter policy at that time was to give the owner time to come and claim the animal.
He got his name the very first day he was in her home, which was new to her as well since she’d just moved in. When she brought him home she put him in a room by himself that had nothing in it but his food, water and litter—and he disappeared! Then she found him in the next room. New house, new cat owner, she had no idea what to think.
There was a countertop with shutters between that room and the next, but as far as Judi knew the shutters were decorative or fixed in place, she hadn’t really noticed them until she started to look for the cat. Houdini, however, had jumped up on the counter which pushed the shutters open, continued through to the other room, the shutters closed behind him, and no one could know better.
For the next few years it was just her and Houdini as Judi accustomed herself to the wiles of a very intelligent, intuitive cat. She kept him indoors, but he managed to pop the screen out of a first-floor window early one morning and was gone when she awoke. She ran around the neighborhood calling for him and saw him soon enough walking next to a neighbor’s house. Not knowing cats she had no idea what to do, but quickly decided trying to run him down on foot wasn’t a good idea, so she simply greeted him. “Hi, Houdini, there you are! Come here, buddy! I’m so glad to see you!” Houdini hurried over happy and purring, and Judi picked him up and took him inside.
And he had his five wake-up routines—lifting the lid on the cedar chest with his nose far enough to let it fall down with a bang several times, and if that didn’t work he’d bite the edge of her silk lamp shades, and so on.
When she moved to her current house the neighborhood hosted a number of cats who were either stray or fairly neglected, and she was immediately taken with concern for them, thinking “what if one of them was Houdini?”
The dark tabby she saw daily walking around in the box gutters of the apartment building a few doors down she named Luther. The black and white cat who was always on a windowsill crying to get into an apartment and who ran to greet her when she came home she named Sylvester. And the scruffy long-haired orange cat whose owners were totally unconcerned if she lived or died she named Gabby, and though they managed to get Gabby back from her, Gabby would return another day.
So it was that she had three lovely kitties and a few years after that Don moved in with his three rescued cats, Heart, Kitty and Callie (a male calico), and that’s the way they all became “The Brady Meow Bunch”.
Fast forward almost ten years and a few more cats, and Houdini had lost his best playmate, Kitty, shortly after Holly came into the household in November 2007. Houdini, always congenial, let her torture him where the other cats were none too amused, and wrestled with her as she grew, and they curled to sleep together until he passed in January 2009.
It wasn’t planned, she wasn’t looking to find another Houdini, but in March that year Judi found herself at the Animal Rescue League and came home with another young adult gray cat, who she named Emerson (of the undescended testicles) and who is a story unto himself.
“When you live with animals you are just less self-centered,” Judi said. “You come home from work and the stress of the day just disappears when you see your cats, you let things go for a while and realize it’s not all about us.
“When we come home,” she said to Hilda, “it’s all about you.”
About the rescuers
Obviously, Judi and Don have a lot of rescue stories between them just waiting to be told. I’ve enjoyed getting to know these kindred spirits personally and professionally, and sharing stories of our rescues, our daily funnies and our losses as well.
Aside from having our cats in common, Judi owns Carnegie Antiques where I have my little shop in the back room. We met when I was running Carnegie Renaissance, an all-volunteer community development group I’d helped found in order to bring businesses together and host community activities; Judi welcomed me the first time I entered her shop and she was always willing to volunteer and participate in activities.
I’ve also designed and am redesigning her website and assist her with marketing and social networking. In fact, we were hard pressed to keep our minds on Judi’s website redesign the other day because Holly and Hilda and Emerson and Alli and Tiffany were much more interesting subjects!
Here is a little more information about them, also from Great Rescues.
Holly’s mom and dad are friends of mine and I see her regularly. She’s a congenial little calico who greets you at the door and knows she’s the center of attention. Among other things, they own an antique and vintage shop and collect furniture and household items, hence their large Victorian house is full of neat and colorful things—and always about a half dozen cats. Both have adopted from shelters, rescued cats much like Holly and taken in stray cats from the neighborhood as well as the relentless parade of e-mails advertising cats who need homes, including lovely but troubled Tiffany, who requires lots of patience to understand a cat who turned out to be feral but was not described as such.
On the back of the rocker Holly is accessible to everyone who walks through the room and can see most of the first floor of the house. In addition to the subject of a portrait I’ll often add a certain amount of a background scene which will truly make it an accurate portrait of a person’s pet showing it in the actual setting of the house where they lived. I had taken the photo on a bright winter day I visited and knew it would one day be a wonderful painting, and so it turned out to be. In this case, because it shows so much of the background including the stained glass window, I wanted it to look more like an illustration than a formal detailed portrait, so used the natural transparency of watercolor.
Here is Holly’s page in Great Rescues
Read other stories about cats and their rescuers from Great Rescues.
Learn more about Great Rescues Calendar and Gift Book
Join me for a book signing for Great Rescues Calendar and Gift Book at the FosterCat annual spaghetti dinner on September 10! I’ll be there with my special pen to inscribe a dedication to your favorite rescue kitty—or kitties, no matter how many.
It’s also time to think about “back-to-school” gifts, and not to early to think of holiday gifts for the end of the year. I’ll donate 10% of all my sales that day to FosterCat, so you can increase your donation if you attend the dinner and buy a book!
I’ll be donating a few things to the Chinese auction—one copy of Great Rescues Calendar and Gift Book which I’ll be happy to inscribe for the winner, a framed print of one of Peaches and Peonies, and perhaps set of crocheted pawprints or a basket of notecards as well.
The Carnegie Arts & Heritage Festival is that weekend, but I will be at the dinner for the signing and with merchandise for sale.
I hope to see you there!
The dinner is on Saturday, September 10, 2011 from 4:00 p.m. to 7:00 p.m. at Wallace Memorial Presbyterian Church in Green Tree.
The menu includes spaghetti with a choice of either meat or meatless sauce, salad, rolls, beverage and dessert. Takeout orders will be available.
Helping to raise more funds in addition to the meal prices, Chinese auction items including restaurant and other gift certificates donated by local businesses will be on display, and you can also buy tickets for the 50/50 raffle. Cat toys and other items will be offered for sale at the event.
Tickets are $9 for adults and $4 for children ages 12 and under.
Click the image of the flyer at left, print it out and post it wherever you think people may be interested in attending—vets’ offices, hair salons, your local church, local businesses and gyms in the area, groomers and at your own place of business.
If you can’t attend but still want to help FosterCat and its network of 25 foster homes, you can always make a donation at their website, www.fostercat.org. Even if you don’t live near Pittsburgh, consider making a donation to this organization that both removes cats in peril from shelters and keeps them out of shelters in the first place, giving them a loving and comfortable foster home until a permanent home can be found.
FosterCat, Inc. is an all-volunteer 501c (3) organization formed in 1999 to provide for the temporary care and also permanent placement of homeless kittens and cats. Through its network of 25 foster homes, FosterCat has fostered and placed over 1,050 kittens and cats for permanent adoption. There is no paid staff but everyone volunteers their professional talents as well as foster talents, and the only expense outside of direct care for cats is the cost of advertising the organization for potential homes and for foster homes.
They were the recipient of the online auction of the print of “Peaches and Peonies” in honor of Peaches’ 100th birthday, and I regularly feature cats they have in foster in June for Adopt-a-Cat Month.
Wallace Memorial Presbyterian Church is located at 1000 Green Tree Road, Pittsburgh.
For tickets, visit www.fostercat.org to purchase on line or call Carolyn Kozlowski at 412-531-4776.
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.
Ingrid King of The Conscious Cat reviewed Great Rescues Calendar and Gift Book and is offering a giveaway for those who comment on the post!
I especially appreciate her comments: This is one of the most beautiful cat calendars I’ve seen. The paintings are stunningly beautiful, and the stories are heart touching. And it’s so much more than just a calendar.
She is giving away one personalized, autographed copy to one lucky winner, ending Friday, August 12. Visit her site to read the rest of her review and enter for a chance to win a book!
And don’t forget to vote for her site in the Petties awards—details are at the bottom of the article!
“When my Great Rescues Calendar arrived I tore open the package like a kid on Christmas morning!”
Chris Davis, a mentor and inspiration, writes a review of Great Rescues Calendar and Gift Book on her blog: Chris Davis Blog: Great Rescues Calendar gets a 4 paws-up rating!.
In part, it’s the creative conundrum of carrying around and then visualizing and realizing an idea over a period of time. I carried this idea for so long, then steeped myself in the creation of the whole book and I’m actually just getting a perspective on what I’ve done. It’s so gratifying to read the reviews; here are two quick excerpts from Marion’s review.
Marion writes, “Bernadette Kazmarski calls Great Rescues, her one-woman work of wonders a “calendar,” and it is, but that’s just for starters. Literally.”
And very touching to me, she noticed my dedication at the beginning of the calendar, “This book is dedicated to Bernadette’s first family of cats. All long since departed from the physical world, she notes that they are made immortal in everything she creates.”
My colleague Bernadette Kazmarski has published her first book Great Rescues Calendar that sings the praises of the many cats she’s met over the years.
And she featured Cooper’s portrait!
Amy Shojai, CABC is a certified animal behavior consultant, award winning author, and spokesperson to the pet industry. If you have a library of animal health and behavior books, you’ll probably see her name on at least one of them. She is also a founding member of and former president of the Cat Writer’s Association, which is how I met her.