Shu Yamamoto isn’t a writer. And he’s only semi-fluent in English. That said, he sure knows his way around a cat pun.
The Sandy resident has a new exhibit of paintings hanging in the Utah County Arts Board, in the Health and Justice Building, titled “The Fine Collection of Feline Art.” It features recreations of fine art’s most famous paintings, but with cats instead of humans. There’s Meowchelangelo’s “The Creation of Cat,” Purr Rubens’ “The Dog Anatomy Lesson,” and various works by Purrblo Picatto including “Guernicat.” It is a vast array of works, mimicking paintings from centuries of legendary art eras. It is, of course, a bit silly, but knowingly so.
Yamamoto, 67, has been an artist since his childhood years in Japan. He and his wife, Reiko, immigrated to Canada in the 1970s, then to Utah in 1983. He had a career in commercial illustration, but reignited his artistic passion through this unique set of paintings — which includes hundreds of works; the exhibit only features a fraction.
How does a lifelong artist end up painting this kind of thing? For Yamamoto, it was practically fate. While cleaning out his house about 10 years ago, he came across a painting his son had done years earlier. It was a recreation of Van Gogh’s self-portrait, but with a cat face. It caught Yamamoto by surprise — he didn’t know his son had painted it till that day. And it got his wheels turning. Yamamoto began painting feline recreation after feline recreation, then unsuccessfully self-published them. “I have a garage full of self-published books,” he said.
The next time around, Yamamoto pitched the collection to a well-known Japanese publisher. Japan’s massive earthquake and tsunami in 2011 had left the country shell-shocked, and the publisher wanted something to lift people’s spirits. They agreed to a publishing deal, and Yamamoto’s work first hit Japanese shelves in April 2012. The book quickly caught on in Japan. It’s already had three printings, with a fourth printing on the horizon. His work is also now featured in Japanese calendars, puzzles and postcards.
“I’m a cat lover, and I’m an illustrator, so it merges those two,” he said. “Versatility is my strength, so I can adapt different techniques.”
His works' central theme can seem a bit far-fetched, sure. But, like many other things, seeing is believing.
“As soon as I looked his stuff up online, I knew it was something we wanted to have,” said John Jelte, the exhibit chair for this specific show. “It’s so unusual, compared to a lot of the traditional stuff we’ve been doing. It was really a godsend, as far as the appeal to the family, and kids, and adults. Everybody can enjoy it. If you’ve had any art history at all in your life, you see it in there.
“He’s got a real ability to mimic the style without completely mimicking the art,” he continued.
Jeanne Gomm, president of the Utah County Arts Board, said various high school art classes have frequented the exhibit. For a seemingly unserious collection, it’s actually pretty informative.
“You could tell that maybe they’d been studying it in school,” Gomm said. “This is kind of an art appreciation class. I had fun watching people go down the corridor, saying, ‘Oh, look at this one!’ It’s great fun. And with a few of them, you really have to look to find the cat.”
At this point, Yamamoto has done nearly 90 of these cat paintings on canvas, with hundreds more on smaller sheets. His house is full of them. For now, he’s not selling individual pieces, though he certainly could, given his work’s reception thus far.
“I hope he gets a lot of exposure from this,” Gomm said, “because he deserves it.”