I fell for it. I believed, after glancing through the book Why Cats Paint, that the authors had really managed to document the unleashing of feline artistic finesse.
And, indeed, at first blush, this slim volume, which outsold nearly everything last holiday season, seems to explain the little-known phenomenon of cat painting quite thoroughly. New Zealand authors Heather Busch and Burton Silver give historical documentation of cat art extending back to the dawn of civilization. Pictures of cats busily painting were captured on papyrus by early admirers in ancient Egypt, in medieval manuscripts and on Renaissance frescoes. Even an 18th-century needlepoint pillow is adorned with a well-wrought tableau of painting felines. Lavish photographs show cat artists in action, and a bombastic analysis deals with the state of cat art today.
The reader is treated to profiles on cat artists like sultry Italians Wong Wong and Lu Lu, the "spontaneous reductionist" Tiger and the "Romantic ruralist" Smokey, whose owners have all discovered their felines' "aesthetically motivated" needs to express themselves through art. The paintings, all variations of streaks and pawprints, are naive enough to have conceivably been done by a cat.
And it is easy to believe they were, confronted with the image of cat artist Bootsie, doing his best Jackson Pollock impression--jumping, twisting through the air in an ecstatic whirlwind of "self-rewarding" action painting.
It turns out, though, that Why Cats Paint is a parody of both art books and cat books, and a brilliant one at that.
Authors Busch and Silver have art history's pretentious slanguage and the hyped-up jargon of artist myth-making down pat. The tongue-in-cheek text analyzes cat art using the mind-numbing language familiar to anyone who reads ArtForum and FlashArt.
One critic, for example, breathlessly describes the essence of Bootsie's painting "Parrot Time" with the words, "Color! Light! Life! Liberty-within-reach--almost, for now the dominant overlays intrude with dazzling speed to wreak their cruel havoc." Other tip-offs that Why Cats Paint is not a sober study of cat creations lie in the multitude of citations from journals not to be found in any computer search, but with bizarre-enough-to-be-real titles, like the Journal of Non-Primate Art, the Journal of Creative Egyptology and Cat Art Today.
"Yes, it looks fake to me," laughed Arizona State University associate professor of art history Betsy Fahlman, glancing at an alleged "medieval" illustration of a large gray feline hard at work on a canvas. Fahlman, who is also the happy owner of a portly gray cat named Obi, pointed out some of the finer points of the joke.
Talking about the bibliography, she said, "It is all done in a perfect survey form, but some of these publishing houses, like `Varnadoe and Kirk'--Kirk Varnadoe is the chief curator at the Museum of Modern Art in New York--and `Slive and Seymour'--Seymour Slive is a well-known scholar of Franz Hals. Stuff like that.
"This `R. Mutt,' author of `Urinary Embellishment As a Major Problem in the Curation of Feline Art'--R. Mutt was one of Marcel Duchamp's pseudonyms, and he used it on his ready-made urinal. What a sketch!"
Why Cats Paint, says Fahlman, tells as much about the art world as it does about the cats. "The authors obviously know how art is purveyed," she opined, "and the book really spoofs on the idea that what is written about art can become as important as the art. It reminds you that so much of what gets written has so little concreteness, and often very little to do with the artwork." Lisa Ryers, who has been handling the book's media relations at Ten Speed Press in Berkeley, California, bowed out gracefully when asked if certain "artifacts" had been forged, by saying that she was "not sure about the production of certain parts of the book." But Ryers did try to explain the book's massive appeal.
"I think a lot of cat people treat their cats like children. Their cats become these silent containers of creativity. For instance," she said, "when we were beginning promotion on the book, we took out an ad in the SF Weekly. We solicited stories of cat creativity and got a slew of mail. People would say things like `My cat loves to rearrange the Faberg eggs on my shelves' or `My cat can play Schubert on the piano.' It just shows this interest in the whole field of animal creativity."
The book has outsold Ten Speed's wildest dreams, selling close to 300,000 copies from a press which has a normal print run of 10,000-20,000 books.
"This one has flown," Ryers asserts. "One day I was listening to my voice mail and there was this call from Pee-wee Herman. He said his sister sent him the book for his birthday and he ran out immediately and bought ten copies. He mentioned that if he still had his show, he would invite Burton [Silver] on as a guest."
Slightly red-faced that I had fallen for this Kiwi-based ruse, some thought still kept teasing my brain. Then I remembered. Ruby!
Ruby, "the largest figure in Southwest art," is a 22-year-old Asian elephant. She lives at the Phoenix Zoo and loves to paint. Ruby has been featured in Smithsonian magazine, Arizona Highways and even the National Enquirer. In 1990, her one-elephant show at the Bishop Gallery in Scottsdale sold out in three days.
Newly published is a biography by Dick George titled Ruby: The Painting Pachyderm of the Phoenix Zoo. The book is stuffed with great photos of Ruby, her compelling abstracts and the fascinating story of her development as an artist.
I made an appointment with Dick George, author, anthropologist and publications manager for the Phoenix Zoo. We whirred over to Ruby's area in a golf cart.
According to George, Ruby's painting is "a modification of a natural behavior." She started early. As a calf, Ruby liked to stand alone and make patterns on the ground with her trunk. Nobody had any idea what it meant, although similar marking behavior had been noticed in other elephants both captive and wild.
Eventually, through the increasing interest of her keepers, Ruby was introduced to tools. From a rake held in her 400-pound trunk, she eventually graduated to brushes and to an apparent enthusiasm for painting.
What struck me is that Ruby enjoys painting. Unlike the behaviors that animals are trained to perform in hopes of receiving a reward--the seal clapping for a fish, the bear wearing a tutu and dancing for food--painting, for Ruby, is her reward. She no longer paints for the public, but continues to work at her art once a week or so.
"It's at a point where we don't say the word `paint' around Ruby," says George. "We spell it out. When the keepers used to go into the yard with the elephants and have them do a variety of exercises, when Ruby did particularly well, they would ask her if she wanted to do a painting. And all you had to do was say the word `paint' and she would make a real high-pitched squeak and do a little dance."
Amazingly, Ruby is choosy about her color schemes. "One day when Ruby had just started painting," George explains, "her keeper, Tawny Carlson, tried handing Ruby a brush with one color on it. Ruby kept throwing the brush down until Tawny gave her the color she wanted. Then she went on making her marks."
Ruby has sometimes chosen to paint in the colors of objects that drew her attention while she was executing the artwork. Dick George said that one day, out of nowhere, Ruby began to "sign" her paintings with a flourishing scrawl in the lower right-hand corner.
"So, do you think cats could paint?" I inquired, thinking that teaching zoo-type cats to paint could be a dicey, if not lethal, proposition. "I think most people don't take the concept very seriously," said George.
"Unfortunately, teaching an animal these types of behavior can be just for money or a public relations gimmick. I think that if we begin to think of animals differently and not simply as inferior caricatures of ourselves, we would find that animals will do things we cannot even imagine."
Leaving the zoo, I stopped in to see ASU associate professor of art education Dr. Bernard Young, who was one of the experts called in to take a look at Ruby's fledgling artwork and help devise experiments to evaluate her painting behavior.
"But the bottom line is--Ruby really wants to paint, right?" I asked Dr. Young.
"Yes. Ruby really seems to enjoy making the marks. The fascinating thing is that she has such control of the brush with her trunk. Her lines are very clear and strong. What she does is very deliberate."
That was all I needed to hear.
Even though Why Cats Paint had emerged as a hoax, the fact that Ruby paints remained. The desire to unearth an artistic instinct in one or all of my cats became an ide fixe.
After all, my grandmother's piebald tom, Charles Atlas, was known to ritually drape a specific branch of the backyard crape myrtle with the tails of his unfortunate squirrel prey. And my aging and mean-spirited tabby, Fatty, surprised and thoroughly disgusted me this past April with a sub-sofa installation featuring the severed heads of five birds. They were all upright and facing the same direction. Thoroughly revolting, yes. But the display necessitated a modicum of design sense and was not that different from some macabre performance art I've witnessed.
So I set out on my rounds. First, the hardware store for a drop cloth, then Binders for some primary-colored watercolors--non-toxic, to avoid fatalities--and some catnip to lure my unsuspecting cats into the mock "studio" I would create in the living room.
The instant I began moving furniture, all of them--Mentos, Bibo, Fatty, Sugarbean, Mix and Debi Bitz--divined my intentions and scattered.
The "catelier" suitably equipped and the paints readied, I left the crew alone to become acclimated. Returning with a stiff double espresso, I noticed everyone wandering around, sniffing, being cats, certainly intrigued.
Debi Bitz, the portly Siamese with an unmistakable touch of hamster blood, lay down below the carefully arranged canvases taped to the wall. Mentos, a tailless gray with black lips who I have always considered the least mentally endowed of my brood, actually began to cast peripheral glances at the plates of paint.
Five minutes, ten minutes ticked by. Calendar pages were whipped by invisible gusts through my mind. I started feeling somewhat embarrassed.
That's when Debi Bitz pulled her incredible girth from the floor, approached the paint dish and dipped in. She sniffed at her paw and gave me a look of total disdain. I lifted her paw to the paper to show her the possibilities of the venture. Though the other cats had departed to sleep off the remainder of the day, Debi and Mentos remained.
Perhaps, I hoped, they were up to the challenge.
Mentos, a witness to Debi's foray, proceeded to the paint dish and forcefully swiped her paw against the paper taped to the wall. I could not believe what I was seeing. And I could not believe that it was captured on film. This dip-and-swipe pattern was executed once again by Debi and twice by Mentos, who both then collapsed, exhausted by their efforts, below their work.
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In a state of shock and glee, I left the house in pursuit of another double espresso. Ensconced in an overwhelmingly uncomfortable sofa at Java Road, I mused upon the mystery of the cat. I thought about how the pagan religions loved cats. About how in ancient Egypt, where cats were worshiped as gods, killing a cat was punishable by death. When a cat died in a family's home, the inhabitants of the house shaved their eyebrows and lamented loudly for hours. The cat's eyes were piously closed and the feline wound up in mummy wrappings.
I thought about the inspired humans that were well-known cat fans: Giacometti, Picasso, Leonardo da Vinci, Francis Picabia, Albert Einstein, Colette, Jack Kerouac, Edgar Allan Poe, Jean Jacques Rousseau and Ernest Hemingway, who had 50 of them. Guy de Maupassant and Anatole France could not write except in the presence of their cats.
Lenin and Mussolini also adored their cats. Whatever.
Returning home, caffeinated to a fare-thee-well, I was greeted by a work that surpassed the unimaginable. Unencumbered by my presence, someone had painted the bust of a cat within a cylinder, wearing a button-shaped object on its left breast. Jarring, dissonant tones slammed through the piece with a brutish clamor. The density of the image and the neurotic unorthodoxy of the portrait left me gasping for air. Something about that button shape, though. Rushing to the kitchen, I found it. It wasn't a button at all, but the "Free Calendar Offer" embellishing the cat on the label of their cans of Friskies turkey and giblets dinner. My cats had painted a can of their food.
So there it is. Cats do paint, after all. With ardor and abandon.