National Cat Day – Bill Barrell

Today in observance of National Cat Day is a 1977 expressionist painting by former Rhino Horn artist Bill Barrell. Barrell’s monochromatic painting depicts his nephew Tad inside of the artist’s “cat room.” The story behind the painting is a whimsical tale that begins with the artist looking for a way to pay the rent on his studio and living space when he moved back to New York City. His solution: to board cats inside of his Long Island City loft. This proved to be a profitable endeavor for Barrell and he was able to move back into Manhattan on Lafayette Street in SoHo. Once back in SoHo, Barrell built an even bigger room for boarding cats! If that’s not a New York story, then I don’t know what is! The painting itself is a strong precursor to the Neo-Expressionist movement that would sweep through New York City in the 1980s.

Bill Barrell, Tad in the Cat Room, 1977, Oil on canvas, 47 x 65 inches

Bill Barrell, Tad in the Cat Room, 1977, Oil on canvas, 47 x 65 inches

The following is a personal account from Bill Barrell’s blog published on 8/22/10:

After Bill Barrell’s opportunity of having three winters in the French West Indies, it was time for his return to NYC.

“It was not easy to set yourself up in NYC in the early 1970s. I raised funds by painting a mural for a patron in New Hampshire. This gave me $2,500 to re-enter.  I could only afford Long Island City where the rents were substantially lower than Manhattan. I had a beautiful raw space loft and I had to put in everything, including the fixtures. There came the problem of earning a living.

What could I do? I had no profession other than artist.

I read an article about a guy who supported himself in Manhattan by walking dogs and had earned $25,000 a year. Great! But I was not fond of dogs and they were not fond of me. One day as a child about four years old, I was in a sweet shop and something stood on my foot. I looked around and was eye to eye with a St. Bernard with its tongue hanging out and breathing all over me. It freaked me out. I was never at ease around dogs again. Dog walking was out.

I thought, well, how about cats? I’ll board them! I put an ad in the Village Voice for two weeks. The first week I did not have one single call. I was sure it was a dud. But the second week the phone rang off the hook. We were in business! We boarded ten cats that week. At $5.00 a pop that was $50 bucks a day!! We could pay the rent with just four days work! It worked out very well and supported us for many years.

At one point, we were able to move to a loft on Lafayette Street in Manhattan, 2,500 square feet for the outrageous fee of $400 a month!   I built a bigger room and some cages for the cats. These were large cages with tree trunks and boxes. It looked like a zoo.

One Thanksgiving holiday we had all the family there. My sister’s son, Tad, loved cats. He was about five at the time.  When I took him for a visit to the cat room, he wanted to get into a cage and be a cat. I put him into a cage with two mild mannered Siamese. Tad looked to me like he would morph into a cat if he stayed there too long.  That’s how this painting came about. I have to put it in my will that if I have not sold it by the time I fall off the perch, it is his.

I am reminded of a movie I saw years ago that applied the alternative thought process. It was called “Sound Barrier”. In the movie, multiple attempts were made to dive from a great height in order to break the sound barrier. Unfortunately, when the plane was close to breaking the barrier, it was too close to the ground and could not pull out of the dive due to the force on the controls. After a couple of crashes, someone finally thinks of reversing the controls so the plane goes with the flow and comes out of the dive in a reverse roll.

That made me think of looking at alternatives when in a tight spot. There is always a way (excuse the unintended pun) to skin a cat. When a painting is not working one way, try another. I have always taught students to think in alternatives. It applies to all things in life and not just art.


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