COOL FOR CATS: Cats in human clothes — it’s a simple idea, but in the hands of painter/printmaker Heather Mattoon, it has become a phenomenon. Her portraits of real cats dressed in human clothes, which are on display now at the French Press (1101 State St.), are the product of a whimsical observation that suddenly turned seriously sincere, if not entirely serious, when the result of her first experiments with the genre took the artist by surprise. “I was watching my own cat Megan,” Mattoon told me recently, “and reflecting on her delicacy, the way she could thread through a maze of wine glasses on the counter without knocking them over, and it occurred to me that she was an individual just as surely as any person was.” From there, Mattoon started playing around with images of cats provided by friends or found on the Web, meditating on each individual until the variation that cat represented triggered an imaginative response in her mind in the form of an outfit and a short biography. For instance, there’s George, a handsome gray cat with black-tipped ears and big green eyes wearing a blue suit, rep tie, and pastel sweater-vest. According to Mattoon, “George is quiet, loves science, especially quantum theory, and feels that doctors should be more forthcoming with health advice despite the influence of the pharmaceutical companies.”
“I feel like there should be a cat for every angle of life,” said Mattoon, “and that I can sense where to go with each portrait once I begin the process by adding the human clothes.” Other cats in the series include Vincent, a soccer-loving Euro-cat who wears a hoodie and takes acting classes; Jean, a lovely middle-aged therapist who wears purple because it’s “a very healing color”; and even the hairless Sid (short for Siddhartha), a compassionate and wise cat in a monk’s robe who happens to be a practicing Buddhist.
Although Mattoon’s vibrant and evocative prints and original paintings have now been discovered by the enormous and fanatically devoted internet community centered around so-called LOLcats (she has even been featured on LOLcats central, the quirky Web site icanhascheezburger.com), she doesn’t totally identify with those who embrace the meme, either sincerely or ironically. She said that instead, she feels that her art is “an intimate process. I sit on my couch with these cat pictures, and I fall in love with the cats. From there, it just happens. For me, my art is something that most often comes out with a bang.” Mattoon suffered a spinal-column injury four years ago that has left her confined to a wheelchair, and this constraint, she said, has deepened her art practice and taken her to a level of meditative intensity that she might not have otherwise reached. The cats in clothes are also available through Mattoon’s Etsy shop, which you can reach by visiting heathermattoon.com.
In addition to the cats in clothes at French Press, Mattoon’s larger paintings, which are abstractions based on repetitive motifs, are on view at Plum Goods (909 State St.), a new shop of locally made art and furnishings. All of Mattoon’s art is saturated with compassion and self-awareness, and the impact of even the seemingly whimsical cat series is often unexpectedly emotional and intense. Ultimately her gift, along with a remarkable skill with the brush, is for the intuitive discovery of the spiritual in the everyday, a constantly renewed instinct for locating the heart of the individual being and for celebrating the variation within species that makes positive evolution possible. One sees it in her abstractions, in her paintings of birds, and in the consummate cool of her cats in clothes.