Arts + Culture,  Between Friends,  Pets

How We Immortalize Our Cats: From Ancient Pottery to Etsy Shops

As a kid, I grew up with three cats. In the 90s, that meant we filled albums with Kodak photographs we got developed at Walmart. Photographs of us—my family—with our beloved little guys and some of just Rex or Chloe or Max, alone, because we needed to bring that love we had for them to life, to put it somewhere tangible, somewhere we could look at and hold in our hands.

Obviously, this is not a unique experience. The rise of kitty fame on the Internet makes that ever clearer. But we—humans, lovers of cats—have been filling proverbial albums with Walmart-developed photos for as long as cats have been domesticated, probably even before then. Thousands of sculptures and mosaics and pieces of pottery from ancient civilizations, Victorian-era photographs, and webpages-upon-webpages show this desire to commemorate the great love we hold for our pets and the companionship they wholeheartedly give us in return.

My roommate got her first cat in the summer of 2016. Our text messages went from weekend plans and household chores to a strict “photos-of-Potato” lockdown. The selfies and videos of him doing mundane things—eating, yawning, sleeping—were both endless and not-quite-enough. So, called by some dormant instinct to have an artist far better than myself immortalize a cat we both loved, I commissioned a portrait of Potato as a 1970s Bowery punk, bringing together two things that she loved. That portrait still hangs on the wall just inside our front door, even though we’ve moved houses three times since it was originally painted. She’s also added two more cats into the mix, and it occurred to me that it seemed a little unfair to only have a portrait of one.

In my search for wall-time equality, I found Nathan Nun’s Etsy shop—NathanNunArt—an artist working out of the Danforth neighbourhood. Nathan does some work in that niche portraiture that I’d been looking for when I commissioned a “Sid Vicious cat.” His work consists of beloved pets in historical dress (some, hilariously, playing the lute despite cats’ well-documented lack of opposable thumbs), or as stand-in characters in some of our favourite sci-fi and fantasy stories. Despite the elaborate poses and costuming, at their core, these portraits are always motivated by that great love and appreciation we still have for our pets, after all these years. “They are family,” Nathan tells me, and just like the photographs we all hold of one another, these portraits are “an instance of love…When they are with us and something to remind us of it when they are gone, immortalized.”

It’s a sweet thing, really; when I first started with the seed of an idea for this article, I wanted to explore the history of portraiture in general and how we as humans used portraiture to immortalize and celebrate one another. And how, slowly, that immortalization had crept also into our love for our animals. But (and maybe it should have come as no surprise), we’ve been trying to immortalize these furry friends for what seems as long as we have been able to put ink to paper.

There’s always so much more being said beneath the art we love. The care of the subjects involved is just a layer. Nathan studied political science and political philosophy at school and doesn’t shy away from infusing his education and his own conclusions into his art. Public and personal interest has pulled him to focus his niche even further, in a project called SovCat, which depicts cats in socialist-style agitprop posters. It is Nathan’s “take on socialist irrealism” which entangles classic cat humour with a very sincere expression of a political and ethical ideology.

“It’s not just cats doing human things, it’s an appeal to different ways of being human too.”

He points to a particular piece of his artwork, which I loved: a Soviet-style poster that reads: “Control Production Time and Reclaim the Day,” that depicts four cats in four segments of a cat-day. “4 hours of work, 4 hours of napping, 8 hours of sleeping, and 8 hours of ‘whatevs’,” he’s written on it. The silly “cat humour” of so much sleeping and “whatevs” makes you laugh while still harkening back to this very real, very-human struggle for an eight-hour workday and, ultimately, how that struggle has both succeeded and failed in a modern society that doesn’t always benefit from the advances in automation and productivity, and still keeps us from our loved ones for hours on end (and, existentially, ourselves) in our various work settings.

“The artwork is a conjunction of humour and whimsy with seriousness and critical questions,” Nathan says. “The weirdness, the double-take it elicits, is not just cats doing human things, it’s an appeal to different ways of being human too.” He allows, a little tongue-in-cheek: “That’s quite a bit packed into a cat poster.”

That’s true, of course, it is quite a bit, but with such a long history of humans putting cats to paper, screen, any medium we seem able to find, I’d expect all cat art to be packed full of a lot of things: earnestness, humour, and probably most of all, love.

About the Artist:

In Nathan Nun’s digital, acrylic, and ink artworks, history, fantasy, and politics are brought together thematically through a world of anthropomorphic cats. The scope of his works range from historically influenced medieval portraits to avant-garde, pastiche political posters and ads. From a patient attention to detail and the joining of cute subjects and studious styles emerges an arrangement of contrasting themes: strangeness and familiarity, the formal and the ordinary, the serious and the fun. Throughout his work, “anthropomorphy”–as Nun coins–is suggestive of a transformed world and nature—upright beings, creatures made persons and a hard world made soft. Taken altogether, they are a collection of artifacts from a world in which creatures have struggled to escape the logic of history and point toward a real-possible future of solidarity where space cats are exploring the galaxy or are free to nap the day away.

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