Guest Post, Carolyn Lavender: One Less Wild One

My identity is as a visual artist who is connected to the natural world. I have mostly maintained that connection through my urban yard. A real naturalist would live close to nature, or at least go there regularly. I usually go to my studio. And my work plays with combinations of what I see as real and fake. Such as the drawing Baboon-Baboon, based on a photograph a friend took for me when we were at the zoo, and an object I own. The zoo animals are still wild, but in captivity, which is a situation where something natural is not completely natural.

Baboon-Baboon, 2014  12 x 12” graphite, acrylic on canvas panel
Baboon-Baboon, 2014 12 x 12” graphite, acrylic on canvas panel

My yard attracts about as much wildlife as central Phoenix yard can, with the largest mammals being the endless feral cats. Some are strays, but some are true ferals, having reverted back to a wild state. Apparently cats are only 10% domesticated, so it is not difficult for them to make the transition. Last summer when a female and 3 kittens showed up in the yard I decided I was up for another taming project. This is the 4th time I have trapped and tamed a wild cat. Kittens are much easier, though the first cat I tamed was an adult. I had my eye on a pure white kitten who peered at me through the window a few times.


Feisty in yard
Feisty in yard

And by luck, he is the one who ended up in my trap. He was one of the wildest cats I have ever trapped even though he was still a kitten. So I named him Feisty, put him in a crate, and moved him into my studio. Having a wild cat in my studio mimics some of what happens in my work, but the cat is real. And it is again a case of nature that is no longer in a completely natural state. Feisty was an extra big challenge in the beginning because he kept hurting himself trying to get out of the crate. Usually cats give in to being in a cage after a day or so, but not Feisty. The cage speeds up the taming, the smaller the space, the faster they tame. The first step in taming is to get the cat to eat while you are in the room. Their motivation to eat is the only reason they can be tamed. I also wrapped a stick in a rag and started reaching it into the cage and petting Feisty with it.

Everything I did was with my protection in mind. He showed aggression many times. He charged the cage when I walked by, attacked the rag stick with his teeth, spit, swiped, and hissed regularly. After 6 days I was able to reach into the cage with a bare hand to pet him at times. But he was still hurting himself, so I released him into the studio early. After a couple days of letting him hide, I blocked all his hiding places, and started over with the taming. It took a couple weeks to get him as tame as he was in the crate. And it took about a month to get him completely tame to me. It is an amazing transformation to go through with an animal. They hate you in the beginning and love you completely in the end. Their love feels like an extra special gift.



The next step was to get him tame to other people. And I needed help from friends and my husband for this. I bought some extra yummy treats that he only received from people other than myself. And lots of people came out to my studio to help with his taming and to give him treats. This eventually worked after really generous help from my friend Monica and her husband.

Monica with Fesity 8-23-14
Monica with Fesity 8-23-14

For the next step my husband and I screened in the porch between the house and the studio to use it as a space to introduce Feisty to our 3 indoor cats. First you allow the cats to smell and hear each other before seeing each other. We also have a security door that allows seeing each other, but not getting at each other. And this is the where we are now. Eventually Feisty will be moved into our house to become our 4th cat. The introduction process can take a couple days, or a couple of months, depending on the cats involved.

Feisty and Bandit thru window 2 1-1-15
Feisty and Bandit thru window 2 1-1-15

It has been 6 months since I trapped Feisty, and he demands quite a lot of attention while I work. I have chronicled his taming on Facebook, and people I see who would normally ask me about my art, are more likely to ask, “How is Feisty?” All cats carry a sense of the wild with them, but for me I think back to what he was like when he was wild, and think about that difference. Here I have taken a wild animal, have gotten to know him intimately, and have turned him into a loving and affectionate creature. What is the place of animals in our world? There are lots of answers and opinions on that. At some point the truly wild animals and places will be nearly gone, and we will need to decide as a whole whether we are going to let them go. This is one of the big questions of my work as an artist. Feisty is a great example of what wild was.


Feisty looking at my art 3 9-6-14
Feisty looking at my art 3 9-6-14

And as an artist I need to have interesting life experiences that I can take into the studio. But in this case, a little white cat is already waiting for me every day.

Feisty looking up at me 9-16-14
Feisty looking up at me 9-16-14

Guest Post, Carolyn Lavender: Justifying Phoenix

Phoenix, Arizona is not a place that attracts serious artists the way New York City and Los Angeles do.  Some might assume that artists who live there are not as serious as those who re-locate to the important art centers of the world.  I admire the artists that make those moves, but at this point it doesn’t look like that will be me.  Even though I am living and working in Phoenix, I am very serious about what I do.  All the artists I know here are.  One of the best reasons for living in Phoenix is that it costs less to do so, and that means more time in my studio.  A lot of creative people believe that it is okay to live somewhere like Phoenix as long as you travel.  Traveling is interesting, people who travel become interesting, and then they can live in boring place but have interesting things to talk about.

Really, I am not bored when I am at home in Phoenix.  There is more to do and experience than one ever could.  But spending time somewhere else helps makes things vivid. My current house sitting opportunity in Brooklyn, for an artist friend, is allowing me to experience quality time in a major art capitol.

When I go to an old city I am thrilled by period decoration combined with the patina of age.  Like the manhole cover in the basement of the contemporary art space, PS1, in Long Island City.

Manhole cover















Also in PS1, is the always-magical Skyspace by artist James Turrell.  Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art has one, but each Skyspace is an individual experience.  On this day the clouds are smiling at me.

Turrell skyspace PS1 2013

Inside the American Natural History Museum there are endless dioramas.  These dramatic taxidermy scenes, that blend real and fake, can be found in lots of museums.  But in this museum, there are more, and they are grander. This detail shows a leopard with his peacock kill.


Something I always notice, are mound-like forms, which some very old buildings have at their edges.  Usually they are situated on corners, where I assume they are meant to provide protection to the building.   This one I found in an alley in the lower east side of NYC.

corner protector

My last image is a small object that I photographed at The Cloisters, a museum created in the 1930’s by John D. Rockefeller Jr. consisting of re-assembled parts of 5 different cloistered European abbeys.  This object is one of approximately 5,000 medieval works of art that is contained within The Cloisters.  I have been to this museum before, but on this visit I especially love this object.  It is strange and wonderful, but there wasn’t much information with it.  It reminds me a little of The Garden of Earthly Delights, the painting in Madrid, that I have been lucky enough to see in person as well.

ivory object

So I will soon return to Phoenix to continue teaching and making art.  And the next time someone asks me, I will be able to say that I recently traveled somewhere important.  Which might just justify that I am a serious artist living in Phoenix, Arizona.