Local artist has a way with fickle felines
This article originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon. - Artist Jay Thompson and his granddaughter Jessica literally herd cats. And yes, it’s a two-person job.
When they visit an animal shelter, Thompson woos readily approachable felines while Jessica, 10, wrangles more prospects. But their goal is not to adopt or just play with these cats but to immortalize them in Thompson’s Cat Works photography.
In exchange, he gives the shelter $50, free access to the original photographs and a print of a finished work for display or auction.
Thompson’s images of felines in Victorian garb will be exhibited beginning this Friday at the new Clayton Fine Art Gallery, of which he is a member. It’s Thompson’s first exhibition since his 20s, featuring work born of spare time following his 2007 retirement from film animation.
“My cats and I sat around and came up with this concept. And now, here we are,” Thompson said.
Personal and political
Thompson and his wife, Victoria, are currently down to just one cat -- a 5-year-old Balinese named Lucy Lu -- in their Kirkwood home. Her “only-cat” status breaks a family tradition of cats in pairs.
As a lifelong “cat person,” Thompson thoroughly enjoys his Cat Works projects, which involve a digital marriage of cat-face photographs and historical images from the Library of Congress. The works often make purr-tinent (sorry) political statements. Each is accompanied by a fairly extensive narrative, but “you can take it with a grain of salt,” he said.
Thompson’s “She Who Must Be Obeyed” features a feline feminist named Ayesha. Another work, “Keep Calm and Carry On,” shows cat jurors returning from lunch before delivering their verdict in favor of the "Tea and Milk Party." His “Secrecy Promotes Tyranny,” suggests that the mysterious black feline may have once belonged to Dick Cheney.
His themes trend toward liberal points of view, as do the persuasions of most repeat customers, who also tend not to be dog lovers. But many buyers purchase Thompson’s work -- often at art fairs -- simply for its ability to elicit a smile.
“One woman was a couple of months pregnant and was planning her baby’s room,” Thompson said. “She found my work and bought five pieces.”
When Thompson and Jessica visit a shelter -- usually House Spring’s Open Door Animal Sanctuary -- he’ll take up to 500 photographs, hoping to end up with a few dozen useful images.
“My work walks a fine line between kitsch and high art,” he said. “I have to be careful to get the story just right.”
Oh, and if you’re wondering about Thompson’s tricks of the trade -- how to get cats to cooperate -- he boils it down to a couple of suggestions: talk to them and let them sniff you. Sometimes a toy mouse, a feather or a string tied to a stick are useful, and an occasional on-the-job nip or scratch is inevitable. It helps to be sympathetic to the fickle feline mindset.
"I understand cats,” Thompson said. “They know I’m an OK guy and I’m not going to hurt them.”