There is this book called Why Cats Paint.
In it, the author presents a number of cats throughout the world who put their paws in paint and create abstract art. I bought the book as a joke. I had it for several years before I sat down and read the text. What’s great about it is it’s written in a serious manner, like a master’s thesis, with various theories and evidence of proof to support them. It’s hilarious but also brilliant, especially the part where the author convincingly suggests the cats are actually painting representationally. That if you turn it all upside down you can spot clear contour line imagery much like they do on that show Ancient Aliens when they are trying to convince you that some stone mountain in South America is really an Egyptian sphinx.
Sometimes the Rosamond Gifford Zoo at Burnet Park’s animals make art that they auction off to raise money and there is a tiger who is an abstract expressionist master. Her name is either Tanya or Tatiana – huge paw prints with the perfect juxtaposition of complementary colors. Crazy, really.
Sunday was Jasper’s birthday and next Tuesday is his death day. He was fourteen when he died. I grew up with cats as pets but Jasper was the first pet I took care of all on my own. He represented almost my entire career at work at that time (save the first year) and as well, he was the same age as the students I had just taught that school year.
He had cancer and I had to put him down, something I thought I would never ever do to an animal. Never wanted to do. It still haunts me. He was alive in my arms when I kissed him good-bye and then I had him killed. Everyone said I had done the right thing. I saw the MRI. Cancer appears as white spots on it and his whole body was pretty much snowflakes. He was very ill. He’d stopped eating and although the specialist said he was not in pain, I knew that pain was imminent. I didn’t want him to suffer.
I just loved him so much.
I found him at the Humane Association on Taft Road in Liverpool, NY. I had called ahead looking for a tiger tabby. I already knew I would call him Jasper after Jasper Johns. He had been brought there one day prior and was sitting inside a milk crate. If you have ever been there, at least it was like this in the ’90s, you would know that the cat area is one large room with cats of all ages roaming freely. Smaller kittens were in cages. Jasper was a kitten too but he was fifteen weeks old and about four pounds.
I didn’t see him at first because I was busy trying to get a giant monkey-like black cat off my back. It was clinging to my wool coat with monster claws. I managed to escape and walked up to Jasper. I picked him up and said, “Are you my kitty?” I put him down and waited to see what he’d do. I kind of walked away and he approached me. When other kittens his size did the same (I believe they were his brothers because I was told he came in with four others from his litter), Jasper hissed at them forcing them to scatter.
I walked to the exit and checked to see if he would follow me. He did and that was that. Because I noticed that he had target markings on his fur! Definitely a sign that we were meant to be.
I made the bulk of my artwork during the Jasper years. The cat paintings from the Echo/Rune series and Dream Time series were obviously peppered with Jasper references, both Jasper the man and Jasper the cat. Lots of target markings and neutral colors, as well as stenciling and found object additions.
I created hundreds of watercolors too. Growing up I had a cat named Tiny who planted his foot in a watercolor painting I did in college, but Jasper never once wanted to paint.
He was extremely feisty. That hissing incident when we first met was not an isolated one. He used to hiss at everyone except me. Once he jumped on my sister’s friend (as she sat on my sofa) and bit her on the head. The technician at the vet’s told me that she and Jasper were “blood-brothers”. Yep, he did bite a lot too. A lot a lot, and I was not the exception. I still have scars on my arms to prove it. Scarification, it turns out, was his art form.
I have two cats now. They are very cuddly and loving. They do not hiss or bite. More docile than feisty for sure. I don’t know if they will turn out to be artists. They are polydactyls, Georges (named for Georges Braque) with six toes on one foot and seven on the other and Pablo (Picasso, naturally) with five on each and both with nails intact; so with those giant tootsie paws they could well become the stars of the next Why Cats Paint if there is another edition planned. They are already turning the wicker baskets into deconstructed confetti heaps, so, maybe sculpture is their thing.