The Artist’s Life: Early Feline Influences and Memories

birthday card with kitten

Did this birthday card predict my future?

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.

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Early Feline Influences and Memories

birthday card with kitten

Did this birthday card predict my future?

Lately I’ve been distracted from writing articles I’d been planning by a few other of life’s events—ailing kitties, moving my mother to a higher level of nursing care, continuing to set up my shop and rearranging my studio now that all my merchandise is out of that room, leaving me space to work.

But these other events are not without their feline interest; 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.

So looking at a few of the things I’ve found in my recent journeys, here’s an interesting perspective on how I got to where I am as a keeper of cats and as an artist.

The Birthday Card

So Exhibit A is a birthday card to me from my aunt and uncle which I found among my mother’s papers. I’m not sure why it was there and not among my things as most of them are, and I’m also not sure why it was among the papers where I found it. But the most remarkable thing is that it was given to me before I had a cat. My parents got me a kitten for Christmas when I was nine, but by the date on the card I could only have been seven. Had I already begun talking about how much I wanted a cat? Or was a kitty a more appropriate subject on a card for a little girl? And it’s a big card, 6-1/2″ x 9-1/2″ with pretty deckled edges.

No matter, the little kitty, the ball of turquoise yarn and flowers in her hair and around her shoulders were decidedly a portent for things to come. I don’t know if I’d create artwork like this if given the chance, but I do distinctly remember a few other kitty cards for the art, some of which I still have in my baby book or in my “inspiration files” that caught my eye all those years ago and influenced what I do today.

batik of orange kitty

The sixth-grade orange kitty batik.

The Sixth-grade Batik

Next in chronological order, among things I found while cleaning and reorganizing my studio was the orange kitty batik I completely forgot I had! I think I did this in sixth grade, and I clearly remember watching the teacher show us the batik process and visualizing the orange kitty with its paws rolled under and an orange kitty smile, like they do.

It also has echoes of The Cheshire Cat from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, long one of my favorite stories, and being an early cat person The Cheshire Cat was a favorite right away, along with The White Kitten.

But my kitty was gray and white, and to my knowledge I didn’t know an orange kitty of anyone else’s very well at all. But I actually remember painting the wax on the fabric in the correct areas and dipping the fabric into the dye, then later ironing it out onto newspaper.

Now that I look at it from the perspective of 25 years of drawing cats, I’m amazed at my 12-year-old’s observation skills and ability to visualize. What took me so long to get around to painting cats?

This had hung high up on the wall in this studio for several years, but as I added height to the shelves I took it down because it had become covered where it was hanging and packed it away. The memory of it barely entered my consciousness until I discovered it. What luck! I can’t wait to batik again! Sometime this summer will be a fantastic time in my new studio, and I’ve been visualizing in batik for a while now.

This also reminds me it’s been years since I had an orange kitty in my “permanent collection” of cats, a few fosters, but not one who stayed since Allegro passed in 1996. Finally, his portrait is on my list of new paintings…

Ceramic tile with cat

Bootsie on a ceramic tile from tenth-grade ceramics.

A Little Ceramic Tile

Next is a little porcelain tile bearing the image of my first cat, Bootsie, sitting on a windowsill that didn’t exist in the house where I grew up, but I guess I took artistic license in tenth grade. I remember the assignment was to make a relief tile from the porcelain, meaning it had a raised surface that had been carved into to form the image, and we would glaze afterward.

Bootsie was, as you see a gray and white tuxedo cat with pickle-green eyes. She was never as chunky as you see here, but I guess I had to have that cat smile until I learned how to work with cat faces.

So there she is, a little worse for the wear with a chipped corner and a big chip along the bottom edge, but still, perhaps I should consider this my first “portrait”! Perhaps I’m not correct in saying that my sketch of Sally in “Sleeping Beauty” (below) was my first “real” work because I took something in real life and managed to make it appear pretty much as I had visualized. In any case, my urge to share my love of my feline was there even at this time.

And like the batik design, I’ve lately had in mind some 3-D projects, especially little tiles or relief-type wall pieces, even flat pieces which are painted. A few years ago The Clay Place Gallery moved into town and I’ve had a great time attending shows and browsing the regular collection for ideas and gifts. I find many lovers of animals and nature among these ceramic artists!

ink sketch of cat on ladder

My first greeting card?

Beginnings of Illustrations and Cards

Then there’s a handmade greeting card which I found in my mother’s papers; my mother didn’t like animals well enough to give her a card with a cat on it but I think I just gave it to her as an example of something I was working on.

It’s an ink sketch of a kitty on a ladder in a style I’d be proud to accomplish today, but in the late 1980s, when I began working on cats in earnest, this was all new and very much inspired by a lot of study of what was current in illustration styles at the time. I loved the swirls of dots and strokes that both created patterns and shadows, and just provided interest to the non-objective space. I used the set of very expensive Rapidograph pens I’d kept from college, enjoying the feel of experimenting with lines and strokes and just seeing what I could produce.

I had one of the Workman calendars to work from because the photos were so wonderful, and it was then entirely printed in black and white so it was easy translation for me to work in monochromatic media such as ink, charcoal, pencil and textured drawing papers using other media.

There’s one thing that makes me think this was just a sample and not for general use—I drew the ladder with a ruler before sketching in the cat and the other elements of shadow and pattern. I remember at some point deciding just to freehand these types of lines and elements in my ink sketches because they just looked too stiff and, in part, defeated what I was trying to accomplish with the freehand areas.

My First Commercial Works

When I was done experimenting, I discovered I actually had photos of my own that I could use, ones I’d taken of my cats and others’ cats, and after this slow march from those early feline-oriented birthday cards through other media I finally came out with a finished work in pencil from one of my own photos. A few years later I collected four of my favorite little sketches and put together my first set of note cards.

pencil drawing of cat sleeping on windowsill

Sleeping Beauty, pencil, 1987

Sleeping Beauty

I always say this drawing was a turning point in my career as an artist; it was the first time I looked at a scene, took in all the necessary details, visualized the finished work, and actually created what I had visualized. In all the other things I’d done before, this was what I’d been trying to accomplish.

I still have this sketch, and for years Sally watched over me as I worked. Right now she’s on loan to Deb at Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation so that Sally’s peaceful expression can bring comfort to Deb’s families when they visit her.

Visit my website to read more about this piece and to read a little bit about Sally, my joyful little deaf white cat who never noticed she couldn’t hear.

collage of sketches

Kitties Being Kitties note card designs

Kitties Being Kitties

And here’s the set of note cards that I still sell today. Three of them are ink sketches, and I’m sure you can clearly see the influence of the ink sketch above.

The second image of the two tabbies was drawn on a type of drawing paper called “coquille board”, a drawing board which has a mottled dot pattern impressed on its surface so that when you draw a pencil just across its surface you capture just that pattern, and in the end it serves much the same purpose as actually drawing all the dots and strokes. It’s hard to describe, but I’ll do a little article on it the next time I do a sketch using this drawing paper.

Visit my Marketplace to see these designs in more detail.

Where I Am Today

So there’s my little journey down memory lane for this memorial day weekend. I’m nearly done with both resettling my mother and reorganizing my studio and I’ll be back to work, seriously, soon, but it’s been interesting and enlightening to happen on this little review of my history as an artist. None of this is ever wasted, and likely I needed to look back at these things at this point in my career. I guess I’ll see in the coming months. I’ll keep you posted.