Kate Benjamin Curated an Art Show of Cats and Guitars in Downtown Phoenix

Stine Kaasa, from Norway, is one of more than 30 artists whose work will be on display during the "Cats & Guitars Art Show."EXPAND
Stine Kaasa, from Norway, is one of more than 30 artists whose work will be on display during the "Cats & Guitars Art Show."
Stine Kaasa

Google "cats and guitars." Go ahead, we'll wait.

A glamour shot of a mixed breed praising an electric. A Siamese strumming a six-string. A kitten peeking out from inside a guitar.

These are but a handful of an ever-ascending number (at last look, we're talking more than 4 million) of cats and guitar pictures on the Internet. They are also a small sampling of what gallery-goers will find at the upcoming "Cats & Guitars Art Show," debuting New Year's Day at Chartreuse Gallery on Grand Avenue.

The cats come courtesy of Kate Benjamin, the Phoenix author and personality for whom "cat lady" is a compliment, while the guitars refer to her new husband, Mark Allred, who plays the instrument in local band The Haymarket Squares and is a certified luthier.

The two married in late October, getting ready in Benjamin's studio-turned-storefront — she wore a green dress with cats on it, he a vest and hat — with a ceremony in Allred's next door guitar repair shop. Though the ceremony was small, they decided they wanted a large reception for family and friends. The two turned to Chartreuse owner Nancy Hill, who suggested her gallery as a backdrop, mentioning that the space was vacant an exhibition in January. That gave Benjamin an idea. 

"Cat culture is just absolutely booming right now. The whole cat-internet-video sensation has absolutely exploded in the last couple of years," Benjamin says. It's a feline phenomena that has spawned viral videos, fashion trends, and even half a dozen cat-themed art shows ("dedicated entirely to pictures of cats") across the country. But never one of cats and guitars.

Which was weird, Benjamin thought, because after all, "There is a mysterious and undeniable connection between cats and guitars."

When Allred was attending the Roberto-Venn School of Luthiery, just down Grand Avenue from the studio space the couple shares, the connection between cats and guitars — and the men who make them — jumped out a Benjamin.

"We kept meeting these luthiers, these other guys in the program — because it's almost entirely men — and they were all cat guys. And I was like 'What is this?'" she says. "I think there's something about the kind of guy who's a luthier. It's a very specific craft, it's very detail-oriented. It's such an artistic thing but it's also a science at the same time. They're quieter, maybe? I don't know, that's a generalization, but they just seem to mostly be cat guys. And that's the best thing ever: Men who make instruments and love cats."

This led, as many things do, to a Facebook page ("the Secret Society of Gray Cat Luthiers," of which Benjamin is an honorary member) and before Benjamin, in a fit of procrastination created her own: cats and guitars. She hounded Flickr, Instagram, and Etsy for all things cat-and-guitar, posting five or six times a day. And now, many of those artists she first found have submitted pieces to her in-person art show of the same name. Others are artists she knows personally, like Jamie Shelman from Baltimore who does the "Dancing Cat." 

More than 30 artists will be represented in "Cats & Guitars," with a collection of about 40 pieces. Nearly half of the talent is local, with contributions from names like Mitzi Melville and Cindy Schnackel, while other submissions come from the United Kingdom, Norway, Canada, and Hong Kong, as well as across the country.

"It's very eclectic. It's just supposed to be fun," Benjamin says. "There's all different levels. There's people who've never been in an art show before and then there's really seasoned artists. There's a lot of folk art-y things [and] mixed media. A quilt. There's people who actually painted on guitars."

But no live cats, at least as of press time. Except for Mama and maybe Claude, two feral-turned-housecats that live in the studio. Rescues from a litter born on the adjacent McKinley Street, additions to Benjamin's own ever-expanding brood.

"I'm not allowed to foster anymore because I'm not good at it, they always stay. It's called the foster failure," she says, mentioning she currently has 11 cats. They include 16-year-old Simba, her first, 2-year-old twins, and former strays from both Roosevelt Row and Grand Avenue.

Benjamin has always loved cats, but childhood cats were of the indoor-outdoor variety (she is now strictly indoor-only), and her family lived in the country which created a "different kind" of relationship with the animals. 

"I didn't pay attention to them in the way I now know cat owners need to pay attention to cats," she says. "I think a lot of people always have that stereotype that cats are aloof, that they don't really need much, that they certainly don't need as much attention as dogs — but I don't think that's true at all. They have very different personalities from dogs, but for them to have a truly rich, fulfilled life, you need to pay attention. You need to watch what they're telling you.

"I never was aware of that as a kid growing up. And then finally I got into my 30s and my boyfriend at the time had cats, and then I was in a position to get one. I lived somewhere where I could have a cat [and I wasn't always moving around]. I got Simba and then I started getting involved in cat rescue." 

Cat rescue led to a cat-fatuation, which in turn brought a career change. In the late 2000s, Benjamin was working for Boon Inc., a company that specialized in making children's products that looked modern and cool for the benefit of parents (the idea was, "just because I have kids doesn't mean I have to lose my sense of style," she says). 

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"And I thought 'I don't have kids. My cats are my kids.' I like my cats, but nobody's paying attention to what are the things I need for my cat, and I don't want my house to look like the crazy cat lady," she says. 

She created moderncat.net, now hauspanther.com (which re-launched in 2013), an Internet hub for product reviews and how-to's for creating a feline-friendly environment. Four years later, in January 2011, she bought a different studio space on Grand Avenue and began making products for cats and cat lovers. After outgrowing that space she moved again, this time behind Bragg's behind the former Bragg's Pie Factory. That warehouse features a small boutique in the front with rising black curtains behind it, shielding the stacks of materials needed for production of cat-friendly items. Nearby, in the same space, Allred works on his own hobby-turned-business, repairing guitars.

The studio is more industrial than foot traffic-heavy, but Benjamin occasionally opens it up to shoppers. If you happen to pop by, just don't tell her you're getting someone a cat as a gift. She hates hearing that. 

"You have to be in a stable place to get a cat and it has to be right for your lifestyle and the time in your life. It's a major commitment. I hope people think harder about it than having children — because sometimes they don't think that hard about having children!" she says, laughing.

With the celebrity sensation of the Valley's own Grumpy Cat and the popularity of kitten videos and "cat culture" online, Benjamin grew a following. A following which included, unbeknownst to her, Jackson Galaxy. Galaxy, the star of Animal Planet's My Cat from Hell, has partnered with Benjamin for two New York Times bestselling books: Catification: Designing a Happy and Stylish Home for Your Cat (And You!), which reached number one, and Catify to Satisfy: A Cat Guardian's Guide to Solving Everyday Cat Care Issues with Simple Design Solutions, which was released in mid-November and recently placed at number two on the chart.

The general term for what Benjamin, Galaxy, and the brand promotes is "environmental enrichment," or environmental ehancement, but "what Jackson Galaxy and I call it is "catification." That's our special brand. That is, designing your home to accommodate a cat's needs .... in a way that is also aesthetically pleasing.

"We show you how to do it, and usually how to do it pretty inexpensively. We're talking about going to Home Depot or going to IKEA and buying a simple shelf and some brackets and putting a carpet tile on top — but you've got to plan it. We guide people through thinking about 'How does my cat climb? Where do they want to go? What's safe? Where do they need to be?' And, you know, kind of getting to know your cat."

The first thing you have to do, she says, is understand cats in general. The furry, four-legged friends are in a very unique spot on the food chain as they are both predators and prey. When a cat enters a room, she explains, they're looking for what they could get — and what could get them. (Which is why things like the viral sensation of cat vs. cucumber videos drive her nuts. "Ultimately, in almost every case they were eating or focused on something and all of a sudden there's something behind them that's about the size of a predator, so it's pure natural instinct," she says. "So, not funny.")

Next, you have to understand — and take the time to understand — your specific cat. 

"The other thing that happens is we really, really want to anthropomorphize them. This is a new thing for me recently, to really work on this. As much as I love them, we are creating this little character around them," she says. "But they are animals, right? With very different instincts. And so you have to forgive. The cat's probably not peeing on your bed because she's mad at you. That's an excuse that so many people say. There's something else in the environment that's triggering a natural instinct, if it's not immediately obvious as a health issue. They're not vindictive. And I think that there's a fine line, and real cat lovers really get it."

Catify to Satisfy addresses these aspects in a deeper way than Catification could.

"We had so much stuff we didn't have room for it in the first book," she says. "We have a whole chapter just on scratching, a whole chapter just on litter boxes or climbing. We basically just go deeper."

And while the book is still DIY-based, Catify to Satisfy looks at the practical application of the advice Galaxy gives on his show through pictures of people's homes (Benjamin's bedroom is featured) and submissions of pictures and diagrams from people within the "catification nation," as they call it. There are pictures of entertainment centers that double as kitty jungle gyms, enclosed "catios" that run the length of entire homes and compounds, intricate cat ladders with hidden entrances and exits.

"We wanted it to be kind of like a cookbook or an interior design book — that's what it's meant to be," she says. "You can just flip through and get an idea and then adapt it to your house and be inspired by what's possible."

"I'm not just writing about cool cat stuff: I'm writing about things that will help improve the lives of cats and I'm creating tools that will make people more compassionate towards cats, and then towards all animals, and then ultimately towards all life."

Cats and Guitars opens on New Year's Day from 6 to 10 p.m. at Chartreuse Gallery, 1301 Grand Avenue. The exhibition is free and open to the public. An artist reception will be held on Third Friday, January 15, from 6 to 9 p.m. Additional gallery hours are Saturday, January 2, and Saturday, January 16, both from noon until 4 p.m. and Friday, January 8, and Friday, January 22, from 6 to 9 p.m. For details, visit www.chartreusegallery.com or the aptly named www.catsandguitars.com.

A screening of the documentary Paw Project, a film that focuses on the problem of de-clawing (which Benjamin is adamantly against), will take place on Thursday, January 14, from 7 to 9 p.m. For more information, visit www.pawproject.org.

Both Catification and Catify to Satisfy are available in bookstores and through online sellers now.

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