Five years ago today I resumed and completed a project I’d begun a decade earlier, never thinking it would take that long. In that decade I moved among so many hurdles and promised myself I’d only “wait a bit” until I had the time, and then the time and finances, and then as the years went slipping by while caring for other people and other things I was sure it would become another of the things I’d only dreamed and never done.
When I left my day job to work at home in 2000 I was not only an established commercial artist and designer with a full-time schedule of customers, I was also an award-winning established fine artist, member of a half dozen art organizations, producing a new commission or other work nearly every month, and participating in exhibits nearly every month as well in Pittsburgh, the surrounding counties, and in Ohio and West Virginia, and with a good level of sales. This was what I had left the day job for, really. It was nice to be my own boss, choose my own customers and be hired because of my talent and skills, but I wanted to grow my career as an artist and writer because eventually that was where I wanted to be. I needed to manage my own time so that I could plan for new shows, new works and new things in my creative life.
One of the first things I planned was my first solo exhibit in June 2000. From that introduction I had plans for bigger works than I’d been able to do, more solo exhibits, learning new media, writing the poetry and short stories and possibly the novel or two I’d outlined, working on my music again, exploring my own personal style and combining all the creative talents I have to create new, different, abstract, multi-media works along with what I was already creating.
One of those projects I first imagined in 1997 or 1998 was a book I’d been calling “Great Rescues”, an anthology of my portraits of cats who’d been rescued, and their stories, in a format like a monthly day book. I could visualize a burgundy cover because it was one of my favorite colors, with a die-cut opening to show the portrait on the title page, probably the portrait of Samantha. Other than that I’d figure it out, but my goal was to produce it possibly even by the autumn of 2000 so I could start selling it for the holidays, or maybe it would be better the following summer, to get a head start on the holidays in 2001 so that I could focus my first year on establishing my full-time freelance business. I mocked up a design on my computer and decided to wait until after my solo exhibit to get started.
In April 2000 my brother had suffered a serious head trauma and at the time of my exhibit was just moving from the hospital to a rehabilitation hospital. His recovery would be long and complicated and he would he impaired by the accident, but only time would tell how much. In the fall I’d searched for and found a personal care home that could take him to provide the level of care he needed and moved him there, 50 miles away.
I drove my mother with me as I went to visit him and attend progress meetings at all three facilities, and noticed a change in her habits and speech. At 75 she’d had health issues all her life, and I knew something was wrong this time too. Through the winter and into the following spring I kept after her doctor, who repeatedly told me nothing was wrong until in frustration to get me off her back she ordered a chest x-ray, and there was the spot on the left lung. It was just a small thing, but in a 55-year heavy smoker like my mother it was obvious what it was. My father had developed lung cancer as well, and had died of a recurrence in 1991.
The doctors said it was early, it was small, she was in good shape for the surgery, a good weight and with her heart disease controlled by medications. I could wait for Great Rescues until after she had recovered from the surgery and possibly my brother would be in a better state then too. On the day of my mother’s surgery I looked forward to the hours I knew I’d spend in the waiting room to focus on sketching out and writing text for another project I’d been waiting for, what I saw as a children’s book about all the animals who lived in my backyard wildlife habitat, one page in the sketchbook for each page of the story. Late in the afternoon she hadn’t been moved to her room yet and they called me to the ICU.
Fifteen years ago this month I became my mother’s legal guardian after she failed to awaken from anesthetic after her blood pressure had gone out of control a few times, and she suffered a few small strokes, and all my plans changed. From that day she lingered in a state known as “vascular dementia”, not in a coma but not reacting to her surroundings. I moved her to a skilled care/ventilator hospital and as the weeks went by and bills needed to be paid and her house cared for, and my mother would not consider a Power of Attorney prior to her surgery, I was advised to petition to be her legal guardian. That was finalized on June 30, 2001.
Typically people don’t survive this condition I was told, but I visited her twice daily, watching Lifetime TV and reading the newspaper and books to her and telling her what was happening with my brother. One day she looked right at me and mouthed, “cup of coffee”, not the most auspicious words upon awakening after near death, but something in her brain had moved back into place and she was awake and fully alert, but needed coffee. After months of rehabilitation in that facility and a nursing home, she went home instead of to personal care that would have given her the level of care she needed. She had made a deal with a doctor who thought she’d have round the clock supervision. I think she told him I was moving in.
My mother lived at home for two years, constantly in and out of the hospital, then after a particularly bad pneumonia her doctor ordered I move her to a personal care home, and I was glad to choose one where she lived for the next six years. She still needed regular hospitalization for pneumonia and congestive heart failure, but I knew someone was watching her and providing medications. My brother was recovering but had been left with a seizure disorder and follow up surgeries and many scans and rehabilitation appointments, and I searched for and eventually found a program that would house him and provide any retraining he needed.
So it was that I found myself, after years of planning and preparation, spending sometimes every day of a week on medical missions for my mother and brother, memorizing medication lists and side effects, medical histories and which specialist was for whom and when, and Medicaid and Medicare and Social Security regulations. I had really thought the critical part would only last a few months, and already it was years. Both would still need regular transportation, lots of paperwork and family meetings and doctor appointments with various specialists, but it was the unexpected nature of their trips to hospitals that wrought absolute havoc on all my plans. In both cases I needed to be there, sometimes for an overnight or most of a day, to be sure I understood and could sign for what was done, visit to make sure things were moving along, and be there when they were released to transport them and any new instructions to the staff where they lived.
I had no idea when this would end, or even change. I quit participating in all but a few local art exhibits because I kept missing deadlines to submit artwork while sitting in hospitals. I painted far fewer new works than I’d planned or completed in the past, staying with my familiar styles and media to match the small amount of time I had, and quit participating in cat and dog shows to promote my portraits. I hadn’t finished the children’s book or even started Great Rescues. It all began to cut into my work time as well, as I sometimes missed deadlines and though understanding customers were wonderful, income did not arrive when I needed it. Often it was days, in the days when we still used the phone rather than electronic communications, before I could call back a lead who was interested in hiring me for work. Then my sweet little affordable mortgage was sold to Countrywide and I also ended up paying exorbitant fees and mortgage increases and fighting them about it in court for years. And I really wanted to write about all these life experiences as well, and managed to eke out a few essays and poems, but nowhere near what was on my mind.
The need for care only escalated from there. I moved my brother closer to me in 2007, but moved my mother to a higher level of care in 2008 and to skilled nursing in 2010. She died in January 2011, and her last year was particularly brutal. I was exhausted and a little stunned for a month or so. I felt completely out of touch with everything, my past, my future, most of my creative life.
But I turned 50 in March, and that became a catalyst for resuming those goals I’d set when I’d planned my business all those years before. I had packed away the sketchbook with the children’s book and didn’t find it until later, but never stopped thinking about Great Rescues. In April I began looking through my portraits just to see if I had enough for one portrait for each of 12 months. Taking the time to look back through my portraits, all those beautiful animals I’d met and their amazing humans who’d rescued these cats and often other cat and dogs as well, all those old friends and places I’d been and stories I’d heard, the art I had created from it all dating back to 1992, reminded me what I had done and what I could still do. I had more than a dozen portraits, well more than a dozen. I would need to rephotograph some of them for print reproduction, so I’d have to look up those people and see if they would be willing to let me visit and handle their portrait again.
And so they did, and I had many wonderful reunions, met new pets and a few new portraits as well. As I visited one person after another I designed the burgundy cover with the die-cut opening so the portrait on the cover page could show through just as I had envisioned it all those years ago, and the pages, making the format a calendar so it would be more likely to sell, then adding some basic cat care and information in the back. All the intervening years had only made it better because I had more portraits, more skills, more contacts with printers and other vendors, and I’d been blogging for several years and had already introduced some of the rescue stories of my own cats. I would produce and publish this book myself and just have a few hundred copies printed at first. I chose which portrait suited which month, and because I had so many wonderful portraits and stories I decided to make it a 16-month calendar and gave myself a deadline: to have it published June 16, 2011, the last day for items entered into the 2011 Cat Writers’ Association communications contest.
Just as pouring my heart into Mimi and her kittens after the losses of Lucy, Stanley, Sophie, Cream and Moses in the previous year helped to restore my faith in caring for my cats, pouring my heart into creating this anthology of portraits and cats and people I treasured helped to reconnect me with my past, restore my faith in my creative self and propel me toward my future. I met my deadline, and at the end of June I sent off my entries to the contest as well as my first few purchased copies.
In 2011, the collection of portraits in the book “16 Portraits of Rescued Felines” won both a Certificate of Excellence and a Muse Medallion, and the “22 Cats Notepaper”, including all the cats in all the portraits, won a Certificate of Excellence in the Cat Writers’ communications contest.
I sold all but five of the 200 copies of that original book by spring 2012. Later that year I redesigned it into the 12-month day book it is today, the format that was always intended because I wanted people to keep the art and stories.
Waiting to hear the results of the 2015 Cat Writers’ Association Communications Contest this weekend reminded me of driving around in the the heat of June afternoons revisiting some of those people I’d visited to photograph portraits just weeks before to deliver the first printed copies of Great Rescues Calendar, and brought it all back to me from five years ago, all the doubt, searching, planning, reunions and the final product, after more than a decade, finally in my hands.
We don’t always get second chances, but when we do it’s truly a gift.
Choosing Samantha as the cover kitty
At left is the original edition of Great Rescues Calendar and Gift Book, on which Great Rescues Day Book is based. It was a 16-month calendar and only 8″ x 8″ and where the day book is larger and has a printed cover I had bigger ideas for the first edition of this book.
I had visualized this project, cover and all, for over a decade, and in a corner of my mind I had always pictured Samantha on the cover, possibly because she had also been on my brochure and her portrait meant so much to me as an artist. I knew I wanted to use a warm, rich color for the cover, dark enough to support the foil stamped text I had in mind. I had initially used the portrait of Bandit because of the red in his portrait and how I love that portrait as well, but my heart went for the little black kitty and the portrait that had changed my outlook on my career as an artist.
Samantha’s mom agreed for Samantha to be on the cover; it’s one thing to be in the book, quite another to be on the cover and therefore see your kitty’s portrait all over the place as I promote the book. I knew how she felt about Samantha still, after all these years, and that might be painful. In the end, it’s a joy for her to have a copy forever on her coffee table so she can not only look at her portraits on the wall, but her copy of the calendar in her living room.
That original book had a die-cut cover as well, so the actual outside was a heavy stock with the title and cover text printed in gold foil, and the portrait of Samantha was printed on lighter gloss cover on the page underneath. The cover was actually printed on black-core mat board, which was the best solution I could find to the color and style I wanted. I just wanted something a little different, and it was. And I know Samantha’s portrait on any cover is eye-catching.
About Great Rescues Day Book
Great Rescues Day Book is an undated monthly journal to record the dates of birthdays, anniversaries and events featuring sixteen of my commissioned portraits of rescued cats along with their rescue stories.
This book is built from Great Rescues Calendar and Gift Book, the original 16-month calendar published in 2011 to inaugurate my series of rescue stories related to the portraits I’ve painted over the years.
Click here or on the image of the book at left, or either of the links above to read more.
Also, read more about Great Rescues families, those who appear in each of the two volumes so far. I feature one story each month corresponding with the portrait that appears in the book for that month. That means there are four extra, and I’ll slip those in when the story itself feels appropriate.
Read more Essays and articles under The Artist’s Life on The Creative Cat.
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