I can see the change in the way our animal companions are viewed and accepted in society through the years every time I set up my display of artwork.
About 17 years ago I began attending cat and dog shows, and in that venue it would be expected for people visiting my table to be nuts about their animals and interested in artwork depicting cats and dogs.
But when I began attending general events, those not centered around animals or with animal themes, I quickly learned the futility of selling pet-oriented items to a general audience. This is strange, I thought, I know some of these people and they have pets, what’s the deal now? I might get one or two people who stopped by my table for a quick, furtive story, but like many of us animal enthusiasts, we kept our stories for more targeted venues.
Eventually, cat and dog themed things appear!
For several years I quit attending general events and coincidentally began creating art of other subjects aside from my cats and commissioned pet portraits, such as my paintings of wildlife and local nature. But in the late 1990s I began to see cat- and dog-themed merchandise at general shows I was visiting and noticed more items in stores as well, including some stores devoted to animal-themed items, some exclusively dog or cat. Time to get back in the groove!
This time, knowing that I’d soon be leaving my day job to work at home as a graphic designer and to further my career as a fine artist, and knowing I’d be depending on these shows and festivals for part of my income, I decided to follow through with some of the ideas I had for less expensive but easily reproduced items that were still unique.
Designing merchandise, note cards, block prints and t-shirts
I had had one set of black and white note cards printed, “Kitties Being Kitties”, but next came the first full-color set, “My Cats in the Sun”, then my small block printed set “Tabbies”.
That little taste of block printing the note cards gave me encouragement for larger block prints and soon I was printing them not only on note cards and paper to frame as wall art, but also on t-shirts, tablecloths and other table linens, tote bags and more.
Oh, the stories
So this time, when I hit the show circuit, I had many more images to inspire stories. How I wish I had begun recording back then!
And as we moved year by year into the new century, I not only began seeing more and more pet-oriented artwork, but also finding more and more pet-oriented events, and people began opening up about their animal companions no matter where we were gathered.
Today, as visitors to my booth browse and stop to pick up an item and smile, or blink back tears as is sometimes the reaction, I proudly remark that I’ve rescued and fostered cats for about 25 years and nearly every cat in the display has lived with me at one time or another, some only briefly as fosters, some for an entire lifetime, they know they’ve met a friend, and then their stories begin—and in the past few years, out comes the cell phone where any pet owner keeps images of their precious companion or companions.
Carnegie Arts & Heritage Festival
At the recent Carnegie Arts & Heritage Festival I was in my hometown, and knew many of the visitors to my display.
One woman kept returning to the tote bags with the black cats on them, telling me she’d lived with the most wonderful black kitty for 20 years and lost her a few years ago. While she’d considered adopting a new cat, she wasn’t sure she was ready as she still missed her little girl. Two years ago, out of nowhere, a tiny black kitten appeared on her back porch and mewed to come in, and her heart is full of love again. I told her I’d no doubt her first kitty had sent the kitten to her to help her with her grief and fill that empty spot, and she simply nodded and blinked her eyes. She was so glad the new kitty had come along, and even though she had tons of tote bags she wanted the one with them playing in the tub because it reminded her of both her kitties. Now that design will always remind me of her and her two generations of black cats, and I can share that story with others when it’s appropriate.
Another visitor asked me about my commissioned portraits, and asked me if I could paint one just from photos, without seeing the animal. I knew this would be a story of a loss, perhaps recent, and I listened as the woman told me that her dachshund had been hit by a car just four months ago, and while she and her daughter had decided to get another one, she wanted to honor her original dog with something special.
She lived in Carnegie and ironically had been attending a borough council meeting with a complaint about people using her little back street as a cut-through and speeding to save time—the speed limit is actually 15mph, the street is narrow, and there are many children and pets. Her neighbors had been taking her dog out for a walk while she was away but didn’t realize the leash wasn’t clipped all the way and her dog took off, ran between two cars and was hit by someone moving far too fast, didn’t want to stop and do anything or even apologize.
She returned the second day of the festival with her new puppy, just six months old, and he seems to be healing the loss in her and her daughter. I showed her the portrait of Molly, the dachshund who ironically had also been hit by a car a year or so after I had done her portrait.
Those are just two of the stories I managed to record, but even just the brief encounters, when people pick up a card with a photo or painting that reminds them of their cat or dog, or they flip through my portfolio album of portraits and say to the person with them, “Do you remember when he used to sleep like that?” or “Doesn’t this look just her!” Just the expressions on their faces are enough to know that my work has made an impression, and the gift my cats have given me continues to work its magic. Thanks, all you wonderful kitties who’ve shared my life and been my inspirations!