Pussy Galore

The Spike was invited to an art opening this past Saturday. In a cat shelter. In Sun City.

The spawn of local artist Steve Yazzie and the Sun Cities 4 Paws Animal Rescue was called the 1st Annual Cat Art Show, and was said to feature the work of local, national and international artists, as well as members of the Sun City Art club. The Spike packed the inhaler and a double dose of Claritin and headed west.

The Spike first arrives at Yazzie's downtown studio. The artist is on the phone, facing the wall, wearing a leopard trimmed black blazer and a red baseball cap over a handmade tee shirt reading "Pawsitively Purrfect." Artists Eileen O'Connell, Rachel Bess, Matt Priebe, Brian Boner and Mike Misowski are preparing to go.

"So, we're all going to the cat show," Yazzie announces when he hangs up the phone, his arms spread wide, a black-marker kitty face beaming from his shirt like a snaggle-toothed stick figure version of Simba.

"It's really ironic that I am doing this in a cat shelter, since my dog killed a cat," Yazzie says as he pats his three-legged dog, Grace. Of the six artists, only one, Boner, owns a cat.

"You know this whole thing started as a joke, right?" asks Priebe, as Boner laughs. "Then, like, last week, Yazzie calls and says, Start painting cats.'"

"I'm not going to tell you anything," O'Connell says. "You should just experience it." She is, however, kind enough to warn The Spike about the smell. "You get used to it after a few minutes."

And so The Spike heads even further west.

The street that houses the Sun Cities 4 Paws Animal Rescue is lined with drab auto repair shops and industrial warehouses. The shelter, in contrast, is decorated with large bundles of balloons. It sticks out like Yazzi, in his leopard jacket and sardonic smile.

There's a long table in front of the door with vegetables, cookies, and cheese cubes, sweating in the 102 degree October heat. Another table is manned by several volunteers (people, not cats) who sing out cheerful greetings.

"Would you like a drink?" asks a volunteer standing next to a cooler of soda.

"Where's the vodka?" Yazzi asks. She laughs and offers up a Dr. Pepper.

And this is when the smell hits The Spike. The air is saturated with the aroma of engorged Tidy Cat. The grossest part is that as promised, The Spike eventually gets used to it.

Inside? Ludicrous brilliance. This place is cat show, art show, David Lynch film and Christopher Guest mockumentary, all rolled into a furry little bundt cake.

A tiny hallway stretches down the room, walled on either side with floor to ceiling chain link fencing divided into six rooms, each of which is full of cats, cat toys, cat food, cat trees, and cat art. Homeless Cat Nirvana.

Volunteers open and close the gates as people enter to mingle with the cats and get a look at the art. The Spike feels almost voyeuristic, pressed into a narrow, fenced walkway with strangers, going in and out of latched gates to look at real and still-life felines. Like the Real World, only with cats. And no one's arguing over who should do the dishes.

The Cat Art Show opening isn't just an art show -- it's performance art. The lives of the cats juxtaposed with the lives of the people who painted them are so accidentally theatrical that it almost surpasses the art itself. It's the elegant combination of fish out of water with water out of fish -- the danger of New-Bohemian-Meets-the-Comfort-of-Pillsbury-Croissant-in-a-Roll.

The Spike goes from Cynthia Stafford's realistic and lovely gray Persian in watercolor to Yazzie's "Crouching Tiger, Frozen Snowball," an abstract of a white cat named Snowball -- or perhaps a black cat recently hit by one. Karolina Sussland's "Self-Portrait of an Old Woman with Cats" is surrounded with formal cat portraits and cute kitten faces that belong on a Scholastic Books' poster. The Spike loves it all -- for completely different reasons. The combination of so many incongruous styles is what makes it so delicious.

Bess' cocktail dress, with its draping train, begins to make her the world's biggest cat toy. She plays with a cat in front of her painting, a macabre feline skull with the jewel-encrusted statement, "No system can fully comprehend its own termination." Under it, a large gray shelter cat licks his paws while watching Bess' dress spin.

Well, isn't that darling?

Volunteer Diana Bonner, who wears fuzzy black cat ears, tells The Spike that the goal is to raise money for the no-kill shelter that houses around 140 cats, including separate rooms for leukemia-stricken and feral cats. "I am an artist myself," says Bonner, who has several pieces in the show. "I had already painted many pictures of cats. This is just a celebration of cats," she adds, mentioning that she owns seven cats and three dogs. ("I'm bi," she giggles.)

Eventually, there are signs that the event is past its prime. The balloons can no longer take the sun and begin popping loudly, making it almost impossible to hear the featured speaker, some lady from the county pound. Right when The Spike's air passages and eyes begin to swell shut from cat overdose, Yazzie and crew decide it's time to slink away.

Excellent timing, as curiosity had about killed The Spike. But if you want a purrr-fectly good time, the exhibit continues through October 25. Call 623-876-8778 for information, but The Spike warned you about the smell.

Spike us! E-mail [email protected] or call Patti Epler at 602-229-8451.

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