‘Like herding cats’

  • "Cat with a Red (and White) Hat" by Mary Jane Begin COurtesy R. Michelson Galleries

  • “Hat on Cat” by Jarrett J. Krosoczka COurtesy R. Michelson Galleries

  • “The White Cat” by Ruth Sanderson COurtesy R. Michelson Galleries

  • “Comtesse Chat de Fleurs” by Robin Brickman COurtesy R. Michelson Galleries

  • Susan Enz, of Northampton, looks at illustrations at the “Cats in Hats” show at R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Mary and Rick Thayer, top, of Hadley, talk to Paul Gulla while looking at illustrations at the “Cats in Hats” show at R. Michelson Galleries. Gulla is the gallery manager. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Richard Michelson, the owner of R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Richard Michelson, the owner of R. Michelson Galleries, left, talks with Mary and Rick Thayer, of Hadley, as they admire various cats in various hats. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Bulletin
Thursday, June 15, 2017

R. Michelson Galleries in Northampton has exhibited everything from impressionist oil paintings to still lifes of pastries to the photography of Leonard Nimoy, who’s best known for his role as Mr. Spock in the “Star Trek” franchise. But from now through the end of June, the gallery has one dominating theme: cats. Specifically, cats in hats.

The new exhibit, which features the work of members of the Western Mass Illustrators’ Guild, or WMIG, went up with an artist reception on Friday, June 9 as part of Northampton’s Arts Night Out. Curated by artist Ruth Sanderson, it debuted only one week after the Dr. Seuss Museum opened its doors in Springfield.

Sanderson was contacted by the director of the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts in Springfield and asked to help coordinate an illustration show there that would pay homage to Seuss — the pen name of prolific cartoonist and writer Theodor Geisel — and get people excited about the opening of the new museum.

This wasn’t Sanderson’s first time curating a show, but “Cats in Hats” is one of the biggest and most ambitious exhibits she ever has mounted.

“It took hundreds of hours of work on my part,” Sanderson said. Among the tasks she had to complete: getting the artists to commit to the theme, making sure they stuck to deadlines and getting artist statements from the contributors.

It wasn’t easy. “It’s like herding cats, herding 38 artists,” Sanderson joked. But, she added, she’s glad that she did it.

So why the theme of cats in hats? “It just popped into my head,” Sanderson said. She added that this may have been for a couple reasons, including that “The Cat in the Hat” is one of Geisel’s most iconic works and that it seemed like the theme would unify the show while still giving the artists plenty of room to express themselves.

“I thought it would be really fun for everyone to take that theme and run with it,” Sanderson said. “The cat in the hat is a limitless theme.”

This limitlessness is evident in the artists’ media of choice as well as the images they created. They used everything from oil paints to sculpted paper to make their pieces, which depicted cats in a mix of silly, melancholy and regal situations.

Also, Sanderson added, “I’m a huge cat lover.” This love is visible in Sanderson’s oeuvre, which includes an enchanting adaptation of “Cinderella” as well as multiple books featuring felines, such as “A Castle Full of Cats.” Behind the scenes, she has three cats — Dr. Watson, Marcel and a rescue named Spider, aka Spiderman (Sanderson dislikes spiders, but that’s another story).

Moving to Northampton

After six months in Springfield, the cats and their hats moved to Northampton, where they will be up for sale at R. Michelson Galleries until June 30.

Sanderson contacted Michelson to display the exhibit because, in her opinion, “They were a perfect-match venue for this show to take place.”

This is true for a couple of reasons, Sanderson said. For one, R. Michelson Galleries represents the work of a number of artists in WMIG, including Sanderson herself. They also have an impressive collection of work by Geisel, which includes prints, canvas paintings and sculptural taxidermies.

Perhaps most importantly, Paul Gulla, the gallery’s manager, said that R. Michelson Galleries is “the premier gallery in the country to handle children’s book art.”

The gallery didn’t start as a venue for illustrations when it opened three decades ago, Gulla said. The connection began when Barry Moser, who was already represented by the gallery, was asked to illustrate the popular tale of Brer Rabbit. In an interview with the Boston Globe, Richard Michelson said that, following Moser’s Brer Rabbit illustration, the gallery became the first to display children’s book art at the level of fine art.

Now, Gulla said, “it’s a big part of what we do.” This is in part because, in Gulla’s eyes, western Massachusetts is “the strongest [area] in the country for children’s book artists.” With 37 artists listed on WMIG’s website alone and Amherst’s Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art — “the only full scale museum of its kind in the United States,” according to their website — Gulla’s claim appears to hold.

For Gulla, displaying children’s book illustration has taken on a lot of significance. “It’s valuable work. To put these illustrations on the same level as ‘fine art’ is important,” he said. Among other things, he added, it “allows kids to realize the value of art.”

In addition to reaching kids, Gulla said that displaying children’s book art can be powerful because of its broad cultural influence. “It’s something that almost everyone is familiar with,” he said. “It’s something that’s so accessible.”

Making art accessible is a key part of the gallery’s mission. “We don’t want people not going in because they think it’s too fancy,” Gulla said. “Art needs to serve its purpose — it needs to be enjoyed.”

Cats in action

True to Gulla’s words, the opening last Friday drew in people of all ages and backgrounds.

Among them was Northampton-based illustrator Kathe Keough, for whom the gallery is a frequent haunt. “The illustrators section in this gallery really motivates me,” she said. “If I’m looking for something to inspire me, I’ll come here, and I’ll usually leave with a little bit more in the tank.”

In the “Cats in Hats” exhibit, she particularly liked Scott Murphy’s “Pounce de Lyon,” an oil painting of a lion in armor. The painting was done almost entirely in muted shades of grey and brown. “It’s so dignified and beautiful,” Keough said.

“But then it’s whimsical, too, because there’s the mouse in armor on his shoulder,” her friend, Meredith Young, interjected. “When you first look at it, it looks almost too formal, but then you can tell the artist had a sly sense of humor with the mouse.”

Keough nodded. “It’s incredibly well done,” she said.

Also noteworthy for Keough was Gary Lippincott’s “Seen Better Times.” Keough’s 21-year-old cat, Guinness, is “pretty much on life support, like this one,” she said with a laugh, pointing at the painting.

The crowd also included nine-year-old Graham Gardenfield, who said that he liked the gallery compared to other ones that he has visited. “There’s a lot of pictures from a lot of books that I’ve read,” he said as his younger brother, Walker, wandered past him to look at a Geisel print. “Whereas in most of the other ones there are just, like, pictures that I don’t really understand.”

Gardenfield’s father, Bryce Fifield, frequents the gallery and also enjoyed the new exhibit. “It was engaging,” he said. “I like coming in here anyway, so it was nice to have something that they were also intrigued by.”

When asked if he wants to go to more art galleries now, Graham paused, then said yes.

Also among the attendees was Susan Gordon Hillier, who has art up at R. Michelson Galleries. While she didn’t contribute a cat in a hat for the show, she has a six-year-old cat named Jasper and a stuffed Cat in the Hat hanging up in her daughter’s childhood bedroom, so the exhibit piqued her interest.

“It’s magnificent work, and it’s fun and zany,” Hillier said. “And it’s very technically creative in every way.”

For Sanderson, who emphasized the lighthearted aspect of the exhibit, Hillier’s review spells success. “I just hope they go away with a smile on their face,” she said. “The work is so whimsical and wonderful.”

“Cats in Hats” will be up for viewing and for sale at R. Michelson Galleries until the end of June. Located at 123 Main Street in Northampton, the gallery’s hours are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Wednesday, 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Thursday through Saturday and 12 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays.