Cascadia's Moggy Blog

Louis Wain, Mental Health, and Creativity

Victorian-era illustrator of anthropomorphic cats. Wow. I can’t even imagine a more appealing job description. It was fulfilled by a man named Louis Wain. Born in England in 1860, Wain first started to draw pictures of his black and white cat Peter to amuse and comfort his ailing wife. After her early death, he continued to draw cats and refine his style. As the years passed, his feline characters eventually walked on two feet, wore fetching Victorian frocks, and engaged in every activity imaginable, from fly fishing to reading contentedly by the fireside. For many years his cat postcards were all the rage in Victorian England. Having been widowed with no children, he happily shared the financial rewards of his success with his five unmarried sisters and their aging mother.

Unfortunately as the years progressed, Wain’s behavior became increasingly erratic and even violent. In 1924, when his sisters were no longer able to cope with his symptoms, they had him committed to the first in a series of mental asylums. For the next 15 years, until his death, Wain remained institutionalized but continued to practice his art. A great many of his cat paintings survive even today.

A famous series of Wain illustrations assembled by Psychologist Walter Maclay purports to show a bizarre decline, as the years and Wain’s illness (then thought to be schizophrenia) progressed, in his ability to portray a cat on paper. Where his early works were fully representational (if playfully whimsical), his paintings produced in the mental ward became increasingly colorful, experimental, and almost psychedelic, finally losing any resemblance to cats at all.

The problem with Maclay’s theory is that, because Wain did not date his paintings, there is no way to know if they actually show a chronological progression. Furthermore, other paintings that Wain produced during the period of his hospitalization remained conventionally representational of their given subjects. There is also some evidence that, instead of schizophrenia, Wain may have suffered from a severe form of Asperger’s Syndrome. Unfortunately, the unfounded conclusions first published by Maclay were reprinted in psychology textbooks for decades afterward.

Regardless of the specifics of Wain’s diagnosis, there is an obviously some connection between mental health and creativity. In Wain’s case, it could have been as simple as finding the freedom to express himself on canvas for the first time free of any obligation to create works for public consumption. No longer obligated to support others through his art, perhaps his mind was free to create works following no whim but his own for the first time in his adult life.

Certainly one does not have to be mentally ill to create great art. But, for some people, mental illness seems to allow them to tap into veins of creativity that might have otherwise remained dormant and unexpressed. Far from causing a decline in ability and skill (as Maclay sought to illustrate), mental illness might conversely open a door to increased skill and creativity in at least some patients. But what a price to pay.


Happy Cascadia Week

Okay, we're proposing, not a new holiday, but a new holiday season. Let's take the week that includes Canada Day (July 1) and American Independence Day (July 4) and title it Cascadia Week to encompass the best of both worlds--both nations, at least--represented in our home and native bioregion. Good idea? That's what we thought too!

Here is a sweet, long-haired tabby fellow from Victoria, the capital city of British Columbia and the jewel of Cascadia's crown. He was serving sentry in his yard in the James Bay neighborhood when we strolled past on our search for indiginous poutine. Isn't he dapper?

Love Victoria--if you haven't visited, do it. It's waiting for you!

The Merry Month of May

This photo illustrates exactly how May feels here at Cascadia Gardens. Come on, plants! GROW!

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Flo the Barn Cat

Jon Katz is a writer, blogger, photographer and ponderer. He lives on his Bedlam Farm in New York State with several donkeys, sheep, dogs, chickens, and two barn cats. He has taken the unusual step of making his photographs available to anyone who would like to use them--without restriction. I love this portrait that he published today of his cat Flo (titled "Cat Mystique"), not to mention what he has to say about her (and other barn cats). Enjoy more of Jon's work and thought-provoking articles at Bedlam Farm.com.

 

"Cats are mystical creatures, part wild animals, part pets, independent beings with a mystical streak. Flo is a barn cat come to live inside on the coldest nights, she is part housecat, part barn cat still, when she gazes out the window or sits by the night lamp, I see the mystical part of cats, part of their evocative mystique. I don't think Flo knows here name, or would ever respond to it. Dogs give themselves to us, they surrender much of their dignity to please us, I think Flo would rather die. I am thinking of changing her name to Cleopatra, because she seems to think she is the leader of the farmhouse.

"Barn cats are not pets, they retain a sense of the wild, of freedom, of choice and they are like other strong women, they can take care of themselves."  -- Jon Katz

Honorary Cascadia Cat: E.T.

 

Allow me to introduce you to our inaugural guest cat, and what a handsome boy he is. Meet E.T.—12-year-old fur child of Jim and Suzann (it was Suzann who took these stunning photos, by the way). They report that E.T. is a big fan of catnip. “Gets downright silly with it,” according to the household humans; they tell us they named him E.T. because he was born with huge eyes that made him look like an alien. We’ll let Suzann give us the rest of the highlights:

"E.T. was born in this house. His mother was brought here not spayed. We believe she was already pregnant when she got here. She was a lovely grey cat. She became very ill about two weeks after giving birth to six kittens. She stopped nursing and we had to hand feed them all. The kittens all survived but his mom did not. She died a few weeks later which was devastating. We found homes for three of the kittens and kept three.

"E.T. is one of the most sweet, loving cats I've ever met. He comes when called. He is so nice that if he catches a mouse in the house and I tell him to drop it....he does. He's an inside cat, but if he makes an escape outdoors you would think he would run like the wind for freedom but he doesn't. If I see him slip out a door all I have to do is go out and call his name and he comes immediately. He loves to go for walks on a leash. He still has those big beautiful eyes. He loves his sister Bear more than anything. They are almost always together."

If you’d like us to feature your special feline as an honorary Cascadia cat, just let us know. And thanks, Suzann, for sharing E.T. with us!

 

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