Sam Kalda: Of Cats and Men

05/24/17

If you have been following my blog for the last few years, you know that I do interviews periodically with people I admire — mostly fellow artists and writers. A couple of years ago, I discovered the work of illustrator Sam Kalda. Sam came to a book signing for my book Art Inc in Brooklyn back in 2014, and introduced himself to me after the signing. I looked him up the next day, fell in love with his work immediately and asked him for an interview. You can read that original 2015 interview with Sam here to get to know his story.

Recently, Sam, whose career has continued to grow over the past couple of years, published his first book, Of Cats and Men: Profiles of History’s Great Cat Loving Artists, Writers, Thinkers and Statesmen. I love this book so much (and I am sure you will too) that I decided to have Sam back to chat with him again. Welcome back to Sam Kalda!

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Lisa: Sam, I absolutely love this book! Tell us about how the book came to be?

Sam: Thank you! As long as I can remember, I’ve loved to draw and loved cats. I began the book while in my first year of the MFA in illustration program at FIT. In college, I came across photos of Marlon Brando and Jean Cocteau with their cats. In these gorgeous black and white photos, cats seemed to unite these two very different fellows. They were the first members of this rag tag gentleman’s club that evolved into Of Cats and Men.

Lisa: Demystify the CAT MAN for us. How are Cat Men different from Cat Ladies (or are they?). What are the defining characteristics of Cat Men?

Sam: The book’s introduction serves as a kind of “Catman” manifesto (Catmanifesto?) that’s playful rebuttal of the bizarre way we gender animals and of the cruel “crazy cat lady” stereotype. The way I like to think of it, Catmen are enlightened fellows standing alongside their cat-loving sisters as “crazy cat men.”

Lisa: When I read the book (and part of what I love about it), I couldn’t help but think about what your research phase must have looked like. How does one go about finding out which men from history were Cat Men? And then how did you manage to learn so much about their cats and life with cats? It seems so obscure!

Sam: I had the benefit of time in accumulating these characters—an early version of the book is about four to five years old. The project was always in the background, so I could be a bit of a magpie and pick up ideas here and there. I love to read and do research, and collected books about cats in art history, literature, etc.

In terms of finding the subjects, the writers were probably the easiest to find as they tend to leave an extensive paper trail of their thoughts. I discovered Balthus’ cats at a show at the Met. I love Murakami novels and anyone who’s read Murakami know’s he loves cats—especially cats that can talk to humans. I had classmates and later fans of the project send me suggestions of people they came across while reading, or while surfing the web. In fact, George Balanchine was recommended by a friend in an Instagram message. From there, I just worked one by one to unearth interesting stories and anecdotes to really confirm their Cat Man “credentials.”

Lisa: Oh, what would we do without the internet! It’s a virtual treasure trove. Who did you discover in your research that surprised you the most?

Sam: I’m not sure surprised is the right word, but I was absolutely delighted by some real gems discovered in the research phase. For instance, while reading up on Maurice Ravel, I came across a biography stating that he (Ravel) was one of the first men in Paris to wear pastels. Amazing. Another favorite anecdote about the painter Balthus didn’t make it into the book. According to one writer, Balthus was known to refer to himself as “The Thirteenth King of Cats.” Balthus came to the number thirteen because the capillaries in one of his eyes vaguely resembled the number 13. Research can occasionally be dull, but I live for those eccentric tidbits.

Lisa:  I love the section in the end about robots and cats, because it begs the question: what is the future of cat men? And what role has the internet played in making us all cat people again? How do cats make us all — even robots — more human?

Sam: Originally, I envisioned the narrative voice in Of Cats and Men to be reminiscent of Werner Herzog at his most “out there.” While that changed slightly, my inner Herzog gave me permission to go a little Sci-Fi in the conclusion.  I’m little prone to Luddite paranoia and certainly had fun camping that up.

You’re very right to say that basically everyone is now a cat person because of the internet. But our everyday interactions are so mediated by devices. We are very uncomfortable with being present and unoccupied. I think spending time with cats—animals in general—is something that is fundamentally good for us. It keeps us present and strengthens our reserves of empathy. Ergo, cats make us more human. Art can do that too, but *most* art unfortunately is not covered in fur.

  

Lisa: If you could spend a day with any one of the men (and his cats) profiled in your book, who would you choose and why?

Sam: Probably Edward Gorey. Maybe go antiquing and browse some used bookstores around Cape Cod? Talk about the virtues of fog? Sounds joyous.

{Sam and his cat, Sister}

Lisa: Tell us about your cat! What is her name, how old is she and what is she like?

Sam: Her name is Sister. She’s a 10 year old black and white long hair and looks like a nun wearing a habit. I think that’s my Catholic school kid coming out. She was born in a boiler room in Brooklyn and now lives with her two dads in a small, well-curated apartment. Like all house cats, she’s a rags to riches story.

  

Lisa: I love it! Sister is very lucky. Thank you so much for sharing your story with us, and for making this book! It’s a gift (And I’ll literally be gifting it to many cat men in my life!). You can get it here and wherever books are sold.

Sam: Thank you, Lisa!

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