Feline Fine Art Born From Love of Cats and Painting

Shu Yamamoto has given the works of the Old Masters a new attitude—or should we say “cattitude.” 

A commercial illustrator, Yamamoto has recreated famous paintings that swap out humans for cats, and the occasional dog. An exhibit of his whimsical take on famous fine art, entitled “The Fine Collection of Feline Art,” is on display at the Utah County Arts Board’s offices in the Health and Justice Building. The exhibit features a selection of the hundreds of paintings he’s created over the years. 

“I’m a passionate cat lover and an artist,” Yamamoto says. He explains that he enjoys mimicking the styles of iconic painters. 

Yamamoto’s feline recreations span a wide range of styles and time periods, familiar to anyone with even a passing interest in art history, and include a meticulous attention to detail. The inspirations for many of Yamamoto’s paintings can be found hanging in the Louvre in Paris. Another inspiration, “The Creation of Adam,” painted by Michaelangelo in 1512 becomes Yamamoto’s “The Creation of Cat” by Meowchelangelo. 

“The Birth of Venus: by Sandro Botticelli in the 16th century is reborn in Yamamoto’s hands as a masterpiece by Pawticelli.

Yamamoto published collections of his reproductions in his native Japan in 2012, followed by calendars, puzzles and postcards featuring his creations. He now has his sights set on the American market. Examples of his work can be found on his website. www.catart.jp 

Yamamoto, 67, and his wife, Reiko, live in Sandy, Utah, with their two cats, who often supervise Yamamoto’s work sessions.

Fine Feline Art

Cats have taken over the Internet, and now they’re taking over fine art. Shunichi Yamamoto’s Fine Feline Art exhibit, showing in the Children’s Gallery in the basement of the Salt Lake City Main Library (210 E. 400 South, 801-524-8200) through April 5, recasts familiar paintings with cats—demure, mysterious, glamorous, heroic—in the main roles. Yamamoto’s art is big in Japan, published there as books, puzzles, postcards and a calendar, with an exhibition of his canvas paintings set for later this year. The Sandy artist and freelance illustrator is also selling his 2008 self-published cat art book in the Library Store.

Local artist's cat paintings are so hot right meow

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.”

Court Mann Daily Herald