September 25, 2010

The Tale of the Painted Cat

I once owned a cat from Africa.

Well, no, not exactly. But as I watched the film “Out of Africa” recently it seemed a fitting way to begin an epic tale. For Max was a cat of epic proportions. And we could not be said to have owned him, for he found us one day in Princeton, New Jersey and condescended to share a home with us for the next fourteen years.

I thought of Max when I finished painting number twenty-six in my series of the big cat paintings. While painting the face of the cat as an almost imperceptible mark, I further obscured it by accidently smearing it with blue and red paint. Max the cat had done a similar thing one day when he dipped his head in the blue then the red paint on my palette and roamed around looking like a punk rock cat with two long stiff peaks of pigmented fur arising from his head. I read that cats tend to imitate the people they live with. Perhaps he saw me getting paint all over myself in my studio and felt obliged to follow along.

Max would often do surprising things like for he was no ordinary cat. He didn’t even meow like a regular cat but made chortles, humming, and chirps interspersed with short cat songs of about four or more bars. His fur was not rough like most cats but like the finest silk. Stroking his fur was like stroking the fur of a mink or a rabbit. And this fine fur covered an elegant eighteen pound well muscled generous helping of a cat.

But despite his pleasant singing voice and his beautiful proportions Max was no angel. He had a quick temper and in his younger days would fly up and bite us out of sheer spite if we came home from even a short vacation without him. He was an avid hunter and like most cats would drag his prey home to our back porch in order to display his prowess. But although many cats had the outrageously awful habit of playing with prey before killing it, Max elevated this into a higher level of exhibition sport. He would take his deceased mice and play hand ball (or I guess paw ball) with them against a screen door. He did this by throwing the thing up high into the air, then wacking it into the screen door with a good right hook. Max would then pick it up, throw it up into the air another three or four feet, then wack it into the door again.

I told my mother once about this odd thing my cat did with mice that I had never before witnessed with other cats and I could tell that she was skeptical. Max could sense the skepticism as well and decided to take matters into his own paws and prove his mettle with mice. So one day, dead mouse at the ready, he chased my mother up a sidewalk, throwing the mouse at her all the way up to the back door of her house (I had come to visit with Max). He would pick up the mouse and throw it a good four or five feet where it fell just short of my mother’s running feet. He repeated this action until he came to a closed door at the back of the house, where he stood guard for some time, mouse tail dangling off the left side of his mouth like a cigarette off a mobster's lower lip.

Some days after the intimidating mouse incident I heard my mother say to someone, "You know how Janet exaggerates in order to tell a good story? Well, this time it was true. She has a cat that pitches mice - for several feet!"

But Max’s pranking personality aside, My husband and I often concurred that this stately, unusual creature was a more outstanding example of a cat than we were as people. If he were a person, we mused, then he would of course be some head of state, a Chinese emperor, or maybe a famous athlete. And although as a foundling we did not know his cat lineage, we concluded that such an exotic feline specimen must have been an escapee from a Norwegian Forest or Maine Coon cattery. When he died we put him to rest in a small rose garden and never got another cat, in part because keeping a pet in the manner they should be kept is an expensive thing, but also because we never could find another cat quite like Max.
The little painting at upper left is from my new series of angel paintings that I delivered today to the gallery Nina Liu in Charleston. Some may question why I have given my cat top billing over the archangel but I suppose that the cat was painted with just a little more awe.

No comments: