A Day Spent Admiring Cat Art Will Remind You To Follow Your Joy

It’s 7:30 on an impossibly hot March evening and I’m desperately searching for Seth Green. The actor and I are both attending the second annual Cat Art Show, and while the event features works by Norman Reedus and Kat Von D, Green is the only one who showed up for the VIP party. “Have you seen Seth?” people whisper around me, trying to be polite. I briefly take it upon myself to find him, but in a room where anyone could be Seth Green (except for artist Paul Koudounaris who’s wandering Los Angeles’s Think Tank art gallery looking like a steampunk robot), I decide that it’ll be much easier for me to find the snack table.

Tucked away in a dimly-lit alcove, the snacks consist of crackers and cheese and I’m anxiously stuffing a combination of the two into my mouth when I’m approached by a woman in a checked-print dress who had the same idea that I did. We munch in companionable silence for a second until I realize I have to do my job and talk to people.

“I’m Mark,” I tell her. “I’m here for work.”

Laura Keenados, or my “new best friend” as I soon begin to refer to her in my head, is here for work too. She’s an artist and she’s got two paintings in the show. She gleefully takes me to them, pointing out that one has already sold (she’s surprised, and I believe it; the cat art bunch are a very humble crew) and then telling me about her cat Ninja, who serves as her muse. Keenados is from Humboldt and, when I crack the requisite weed joke, she immediately offers me to smoke, just as soon as we can find her husband. “He’s the big bearded guy in a kilt,” she says.

Five minutes later we’re standing outside of the gallery, lighting up with Keenados’ husband and his mother. As we marvel at the line of people waiting to get inside (the final count for the entire weekend is 7,000 people), Keenados tells me why she felt comfortable approaching me. “You have back hair. So does my husband. People with back hair are usually trustworthy,” she says.

This is not my first cat art rodeo. In 2014, after accidentally booking myself for a private meeting with Grumpy Cat, Susan Michals (the creator of both this art show and last year’s highly popular CatCon) contacted me about covering the convention. I went, with the idea of writing something snarky, and returned filled with a genuine respect for cats and the people who loved them.

Michals, who’s presiding over this year’s event in a beautiful vintage dress that wouldn’t be out of place on a Hollywood red carpet, couldn’t be more delighted by the turnout on opening night. When Keenados and I walk back into the gallery, floating on air, she greets us with hugs and asks us how everything is going. “I still haven’t found Seth Green,” I report. She says he’s gone, but the momentary disappointment I feel vanishes when Keenados reappears after magically slipping away, grips my hand excitedly, and tells me that her second painting has sold. We scream at each other wildly and she envelops me in a hug before sweeping off to share the good news with family and friends.

Usually, screaming in an art gallery would be considered rude, but it doesn’t seem out of place here, where a mother/daughter team in matching dresses spin across the floor, and a man a few feet from me excitedly discusses whether “this piece is about sex or aggression” in a way that seems serious and important and not at all ironic. He raises his voice to be heard above the din of the quickly filling room, gripping his companion’s arm.

“Really look at this,” he says. “Really see it.”

This is exactly what Michals envisioned for the event. A believer in the idea that one must actually see art to experience it, she says that the main point of the Cat Art Show is to recalibrate the way the world thinks about people who love felines.

“We’re not Miss Havisham or Eleanor Abernathy,” she says after I compliment her on her outfit.

Michals has always believed that anyone could be a cat lady and that turning the descriptor into a pejorative is wrong. The Cat Art Show and CatCon are aimed at changing that perception, and she goes about it in a very accessible way. At what other art show would you see a paiting of Patrick Swayze just chilling with a cat (possibly in heaven)?

But there’s something even more exciting on Michals’ agenda: She’s trying to bring art to everyone, including everyone who has ever loved a cat.

“It’s less about art lovers who like cats,” she explains, “and more about cat lovers who like art.”

This describes me to a tee. Show me a Monet and the only thing I’ll be able to say is that it’s a nice picture. Show me Jason Edward Davis’ The Cucumber Incident and I could go on about it for hours. If not about the colors and the composition, then definitely about how goddamn adorable the kitties are.

Anyone expecting to see just the adorable, however, is in for a rude awakening. Sure, there’s plenty of cute to go around, but there’s also a haunting portrait of Amanda Seyfried done by Mark Ryden which depicts her holding a cat while blood drips down her throat.

Norman Reedus’ work also skews dark. His photo — which I have to be reminded several times not to call a painting because, “Not all art is drawn, Mark” — sells on the first night of the show to an ecstatic collector, Linda Wise. For the rest of the evening, Wise proudly poses for photos in front of her acquisition in what she calls an “anime wig.” She’s also come all the way from Humboldt for this, and she tells me that while she feels happy for her score, she’s equally delighted that the work of her friends is finding an audience.

This is a theme at the show: People being happy for one another instead of competitive. And with the art deliberately priced to make it affordable, it truly is a show for the common folk (who happen to love cats). Even those who can’t afford an original shell out $20 for prints of cats, take pictures with artists, and make new friends. These are things one rarely does at an art show, because it’s hard to cut through the scene. Here, an impossibly tall woman in cat ears gabs to a stranger about how “fucking much I’d like to hang this on my fucking wall,” while the onlookers nod in agreement.

As the place grows louder and louder and I start feeling higher and higher (the stuff they grow in Humboldt is goooood), I can’t help but feel caught up in the jovial mood. I’d arrived at the art show only days before a major surgery and, while I’ve suffered an awful few weeks (made even worse by a video the hospital made me watch about all the ways in which anesthesia could kill me both during and after my procedure), I find myself laughing with strangers as if they’re lifelong friends.

I also find myself zoning out in front of this painting as if it might hold the key to the mysteries of the universe. Created by Tobias Keene (who is famously collected by Robert Downey Jr.), it’s an excellent example of the kind of high art that’s on display.

At one point in the evening, I’m approached by a woman wearing a full-on cat suit and handing out buttons. Her name, she tells me, is Kitty Decides, and she’s here promoting her upcoming music video.

“What’s it called?” I ask.

Kitty Decides,” she says. Just like her name. “It’s a female empowerment anthem,” she informs me, before handing me a button. “You’ll get it when you see it.” I chose to give her the benefit of the doubt because her costume comes with ferocious claws.

Anywhere else, Kitty Decides might seem out of place, weird even. Here, she’s welcomed. There are no outsiders. Plenty of people go to the Cat Art Show for ironic purposes, but there’s no irony inside the gallery . It’s an important element of the whole experience, that lack of irony. Often, we get so bogged down with wanting to look and seem intelligent, it’s nice to find a place with none of that posturing.

Serious portraits of cats hang next to whimsical paintings of cats curled up in Frida Kahlo’s hair, and no one judges anyone else for which pieces of art they like. Cats are the motif and the catalyst. People arrived to see them but they stay to bond with others. I can’t say lifelong friendships are being made… but there’s no way I’d drive through Humboldt county again without messaging Laura Keenados to see if I could meet her cat.

Two days later, I return to the show with some friends. The crowd is smaller, but no less giddy, and even though there isn’t a line stretching around the block this time, the energy inside is still electric. People are laughing, chatting, enjoying themselves. Once in a while, you can hear someone meow. And that too is part of the point. As Michals has been told many times, the events that she creates foster connection, especially for those who may not be able to connect with others as easily as they’d like.

Like the autistic man who found his true calling in creating an elaborate playground for cats, people at the show are also finding points of connection over the curve of a cat’s ear, or a print that subtly suggests cats and shark symbiosis.

On my way out, buoyed by both my experience and the very real fear of my impending surgery (I’ve already made my best friend promise she’d take care my guinea pigs, and forced my husband to agree that he’d personally enforce the persona non-grata list I’d created in the event of my funeral), I fall in love with a painting of a cat shooting rainbow rays of death on an unsuspecting and terrified public. Painted by Alexandra Troitskaya and shipped directly from Russia for the show, “Apocalyptic Kitty” captures everything I’ve been feeling, both the light and the dark.

“You’re going to be okay,” the cat seems to call to me as it beams its rainbow rays of death at the tiny world at its feet. “These people won’t, but you will be. Buy me and everything will be fine.”

So I do buy it, spending a significant chunk of change (around the price of a PS4 and two games) on a painting I’m not sure I’ll live to enjoy.

When the painting arrives via FedEx a week later, I’m recovering from surgery, on heavy medication. My husband, unaware of my purchase, unwraps it and brings it to me while I’m in bed, rousing me from a deep Vicodin-induced sleep to demand exactly what the hell I think I’m doing with my life (and our finances). My response of “buying art” followed by a slobbery giggle does not appease him, and I don’t have the exact words I need to make it clear that the purchase wasn’t just about the art, it was about the experience, a weekend filled with lots of cats and very little judgment.

“It’s an investment,” I slur.

Finally, appealing to his humanitarian nature, I tell him that ten percent of the proceeds from the show are set to go to Kitten Rescue, a non-profit dedicated to helping cats find homes. Apocalyptic Kitty has found his, and once I’m allowed to put him up (my husband insists that he’s too scary for the hypothetical children who might visit us), he’ll be an excellent reminder of how much fun art can be. Especially when there’s laughter and some of Humboldt’s finest involved.



Want more cats? CatCon LA is returning for an even bigger year this June. You can find more information here.

Mark Shrayber is Senior Writer at Uproxx Life. You can contact him directly on Twitter