The cat pole|Non-furry friends fancy up for felines

Published 12:00 am Sunday, February 1, 2009

I had a project, and I needed some help, so back in September I sought the assistance and talent of some friends.

I wanted them to come to my house and paint cats. No, not my feline friends — these were concrete cats, or cat faces.

The project had its inception several years ago when my sister, Marguerite Jean, gave me one of those component faces like you see hanging on a tree. Usually it’s that of a scary old man, but the one she gave me was of a cat. I dutifully hung the parts on a pine tree near the driveway and, for some reason, saved the plastic mold that covered it when it was for sale on the store shelf.

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I kept that mold several years, then decided to build some wooden but detachable sides and pour a concrete cat or two. I poured 14 before I accidentally destroyed the mold. If I hadn’t, there is no telling how much concrete McCoy’s would have sold, for I might still be pouring cats.

What to do?

They were 3-D in effect, so they couldn’t be a walk. I thought of a wall, but I didn’t have enough old bricks for that. Each face was about a foot square and 3 inches thick. For some reason I had embedded hooks in the back of each one, but they were too heavy for wall hangings.

Then I had an epiphany. Maybe it was a subconscious flashback to the year I lived in Alaska, or maybe it came to me after two glasses of cheap wine — but why not a cat totem pole? I had never seen one, never heard of one, but that has never stopped me.

Plans for the pole began to come together. My chief of the project was Hobbs Freeman; my nephew Jeff Forbes was a vital link to completion. It was Lane Berg who suggested I invite artist friends to come to my house for a cat-painting good time.

Paint day was Friday, Oct. 3. The only guidelines were that there were none — any colors, any designs would do. I primed the faces and, at the suggestion of Alan at Sherwin-Williams, decided to put the same type of base coat on each one that Robert Dafford used on the floodwall murals.

My artists included Lenore Barkley, Lane Berg, Reid Bishop, Jean Blue — and some from other parts of the alphabet — Hobbs Freeman, Nancy Mitchell and Ginger Rosser. (Nancy and Jean had to paint at home).

We worked on the front porch on a splendid fall day. Each artist had his own method and style: Reid painted sitting down; Lane did assembly-line productions (three at a time); Lenore had the most spectacular colors; and Ginger painted a memorial, in memory of her Callie — a calico, of course. Nancy’s cat has fish eyes.

Some of these concrete art offerings have names: Fancy, who is really Sarah Palin, is winking; Hobbs named his after a legendary lady from Jefferson County, Tootie Greene; Ginger and I painted one together, her half and my half, like the famous mattress ads, so we named it Dream On.

Strange to me there were no black cats, only one white cat and one yellow cat. None were shifty-eyed, and there were none crosseyed. Lenore created a special necklace for one of hers.

There also needed to be a top cat, one larger than all the rest, so I built him out of wood, added some large metal whiskers, a long red tail, and dressed him with a bright green bow tie.

The completed cats waited in stacks on my back porch for the right time, which was good weather plus the availability of Jeff, who has his own truck with an auger and a bucket. We chose a spot in my backyard, near my East Yokena sign and blue bottle tree. It didn’t take long before the poles were towering 25 feet high. The next project was putting the totems (is there such a word?) on it. Cross bars for each cat to rest on, plus a small cable around the back of the poles was the method of installation. Hobbs lost the toss — he had to go up in the bucket and attach each cat. Jeff ran the operation of raising and lowering the bucket, and Reid and I got each face ready. Once the job was completed, one of my curious cats — and there are no other kind — Walterine May, climbed a stepladder for a closer inspection. She might have feared being replaced by a cat that doesn’t eat, doesn’t fight, doesn’t shed and doesn’t poop.

I told my friend Ian Brown, an archaeologist from the University of Alabama, that I really did this project for his profession or those who will follow it centuries from now. No doubt students from that great Tuscaloosa institution will still be exploring the environs of Campbell’s Swamp University.

 I can only imagine their excitement when they discover the array of concrete cats and debate and contemplate the rather mysterious, but obviously highly intelligent and talented, tribe who lived here. Perhaps the cat effigies were left by a little-known tribe of cat worshipers who moved south as the arctic ice melted.

It probably will seem to future archaeologists that Egyptians were not the only culture to think cats were gods.

Cats are certainly convinced of it.

Gordon Cotton is an author and historian who lives in Vicksburg.