Once More, With Felines
A dissertation on cats from Memphis' most famous painter.
Buddy, The Friendly Cat, 1971, painting by Carroll Cloar
There have been lately a number of anti-feline diatribes, as well as an ongoing atrocity of a comic strip called “Garfield.” (The author draws badly and has never known any cats. He is familiar only with the stereotypes created by ailurophobes.)
Cats are actually more like people than any other animals. They do not give their affections easily, and have to be won. They will probably love you if you love them — unless you are just an awful, unlovable character. Somebody needs to speak up for cats.
For a number of years I shared a home with four really great cats: Ms. Felix (whose name underwent a slight alteration, from Felix, when she gave birth to three kittens), Vesta Juba, Boris Goudinov, and Belle Starr.
Did you ever see a cat chasing a dog, or a bird chasing a cat? It has happened here. One day a small beagle wandered into the yard, and Boris (who shall henceforward be referred to as Buddy, for that is what he quickly became — my delightful and amusing companion) was on the front porch. The beagle stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Buddy, and there was a confrontation. The beagle was bigger than Buddy, of course, but Buddy didn’t think he was too much bigger so he made his move. The beagle, surprised by this unexpected aggression from a mere feline, and perhaps because he was not on his home grounds, turned tail and ran.
Mockingbirds likewise are big bluffers They make a lot of angry sounds during the nesting season and they dive on cats. However, only an inexperienced kitten pays them any attention. The older cats just ignore them. But let a jaybird come on the scene, and it’s a different story. Cats take cover as fast as they can.
For some reason, my cats never caught birds. Buddy rid the yard of snakes, and every once in a while he would catch him a squirrel. Belle Starr never caught a bird, or a squirrel, or a snake. She was a chipmunk specialist.
Once I heard the sound of a katydid at their twilight singing time. But this one seemed to be moving about — and I had never heard a katydid sing in flight. Then I looked out and saw that Buddy was running around and the sound seemed to be coming from his mouth. He had caught a katydid and was holding it as the katydid made its sound. (Curiously, I could not distinguish their “get me the hell out of here” sound from their usual “come and let’s make love” sound.) Buddy was reluctant to let the katydid go and I had to choke him — a little bit — before he would release it. The katydid probably thought those eighteen years in the ground were better than this.
Buddy either understood English or had very strong perceptions. During winter evenings he liked to stretch out in front of the fireplace. One night I lit the fire and then got interested in a television program. After thirty minutes I looked up and the fire had gone out and Buddy, no doubt cold, had retired to his room. I went through the room en route to the side porch to get the kindling. “Buddy,” I said, “Go back and give it another try. I’m going to fix it.” When I returned with the kindling Buddy had done exactly as I had suggested. He was stretched out in front of the dead fire, waiting to give it another try.
I got a variety of toys for Belle Starr, but there was one thing she liked best of all — my wrist watch. When I took a shower she would get my watch down off the dresser and play soccer all over the house with it. Finally I learned to hide my watch in a drawer and bought her a toy. She wasn’t fooled for a minute; never touched it.
Once I was doing a painting called “The Draught of Fishes.” I bought a catfish, carp, and a buffalo for models, and when I was through with them I froze two of them and cut the catfish up for the cats. They would have none of it. Probably tasted too fishy.
All my cats loved me.
The late artist Carroll Cloar (1913-1993) was not only this area’s most famous painter but also dabbled in writing; this essay originally appeared in the May 1985 issue of Memphis. A centennial retrospective of his work, organized jointly by the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art and the Arkansas Art Center, will be presented at the Brooks in June 2013.