Every Instagram member who follows artists will know that studio pets are a ‘thing’. Your feed will frequently feature a cavalcade of creatures great and small: pets adorning window sills, posed on art-strewn floors, and splayed across tables in workspaces. For me, these animals are more embodied than the artists themselves; I can recall half a dozen of them—at least—without having the foggiest idea of the painter, printmaker or photographer each one owns.
For instance, there’s Mr. Tumnus, the fluffy ginger tom who drapes his mink across cotton press sheets in a British letterpress studio. There’s Miss Marple, the miniature dachshund who peers into the camera with a disconcertingly human stare, distracting me from her mum’s linoprints and etchings. Miss Marple lives in a rural Northamptonshire studio, which makes me wonder about the British penchant for addressing pets with honorifics. Then there’s Linji the ‘shop dog’ collie from Virginia, who mesmerizes me with how exquisite sleek fur and bright eyes look next to an iron guillotine.
All these pets have one thing in common: they are faithful studio companions serving their masters as they weather the perils and joys of the creative journey. You can see, in their affectionate faces, and read, in their owner’s endearments, the important duty they serve during its hard phases, as they assuage the agony of creative block with their calming presence, or comfort with a cuddle in moments of crippling self-doubt.
Thirty-odd years back, I found Settera, the perfect studio companion. I was a lonely teenager at the time, living with my single dad. One evening as he stood watering the front garden, an unfamiliar car slowed in our street, its door opened and a half-dozen grey kittens scattered across the road. The door slammed and the car took off. Dad dropped his hose and rushed to shoo the creatures from our yard. He has many good qualities, my dad, but he’s no cat lover—and he knew that if his teenage daughter spotted strays, there’d be trouble.
To his credit, he did let me keep the half-wild kitten from this brood that I lured into my bedroom with a sausage the next day. I think he was thankful that I only found one. After that, life wasn’t so lonely anymore. Here’s a picture of Settera and I. Can you see the bond? Feel the love? Hear The Carpenters’ track playing in the background? Settera was my studio—and life—companion for about twelve years before she passed on to the great big heated Doona in the sky.
When the opportunity arose a couple of years later to give a stray black kitten a home, I leaped at it. A friend, working at a local vet, offered the poor lil’ mite on Facebook. The kitten had been brought into the clinic after wandering into one of the sheds at Hazeldene’s Chicken Farm, lost and disoriented. My happy prelude with Settera had made me consider myself a bit of a ‘stray whisperer’. I didn’t need to meet the kitten first. We would take her. After all, who could resist this face?
On my way to pick her up, I swung by the pet shop to buy some supplies. As I piled cat goodies onto the counter, the lady behind it said, ‘You getting a new baby?’
I beamed. ‘How can you tell?’
‘What sort of a cat is it?’ she asked, scanning the tiny belled collar I’d chosen.
‘She’s a black cat. I’ve always wanted one.’
The lady gave me a deadpan stare. ‘A black cat? The black ones are usually vicious.’
For all my umbrage at the pet shop lady, I had to concede on our way home with the kitten that she might have been right. How many fluff balls, small enough to curl in your cupped palm, hiss and spit like a bag o’ demons? The kitten’s hatred for being handled was so strong that I had to relinquish her to the car’s footwell to save my hands. In my eagerness I’d mistaken a feral for a stray, not realising she was actually part of the wild food chain living on rodents and smashed eggs at the chicken farm. Before journey’s end, I knew we’d have to revise her name. ‘Shanti’ had been my first choice. That’s the Sanskrit word for peace and inner calm. In the end, we settled on ‘Kali’. She’s the Hindu goddess of death and destruction, often depicted wearing the bloody, decapitated heads of her victims.
Kali didn’t settle in at our home so much as come to inhabit it, in the same way that a ghost—or, more accurately, a poltergeist—would. That was fifteen years ago, and little has changed; Kali remains ‘untamable’. In fact, it might be said that we are the ones who’ve been tamed—to fit in with her ways. We’ve come to accept that the gentle, hands off approach is best. In fact, pats are out of the question. Unless you want to get this reaction:
And if you think, folks, that’s an idle threat you see there, in those bared ivories, know that she’s sent two fully-grown men to hospital to get ‘cleaned up’. We’ve learnt the hard way that it’s just unacceptable to seek comfort in that sleek fur…or to twirl your toes in relaxed reverie while sitting on the couch…or to move the computer mouse within Kali’s proximity—for all mice belong to her. Since she moved in, even the most mundane domestic moments carry the chance of danger.
Before I start to sound like a bad cat mum, I should say that Kali isn’t without her endearing qualities. She’s often moved by a maternal feeling towards our two dogs. It’s not unusual to see her trying to snuggle up to them for a clean…before they rise with averted eyes and slink away. This is Kali with Quiver, my late whippet, who had a bit more fortitude.
Her other good quality is…she’s pretty. Kali passes her Instagram photoshoots with flying colours. She ‘poses’ and ‘adorns’ surfaces very well. But in her studio duties, it must be acknowledged that Kali isn’t just a failure—she’s a liability. Try to shift her from an artwork-strewn floor, and this happens:
Ask her to move from your desk, and you see this face:
You get the message.
In letting go of my dreams of ‘filial feline bliss’ and coming to terms with Kali’s ways, I’ve had to become philosophical. This is how I find a place for her in my studio:
Traditionally, artists kept a human skull perched in a prominent place to remind them that death might be around any corner. The memento mori, as it was called, was supposed to encourage creatives to make the most of everything—and to stifle excessive pride. I wonder, could anything serve this purpose so well as a little shadow presence sitting in your corner giving you a death stare? Or with starting your day in the studio by stepping—barefoot—on a creatively-reconstructed rat? Kali’s a kind of artist too.
Perhaps, in living up to her name, this is her role with us.