Animals We Love & the Art They Help Us Make

by Michelle M. Johnson (and Samuel Johnson-Vrooman and Steve Vrooman)

The artist life that I have been living since the publication of my first coloring book, Doodled Blooms, did not come naturally to me.
An ink sketch of a cat in profile that reads Willow watching birds in the art room window.
A smidge of an ink drawing I did of Willow in my 
journal in 2006, back when I only drew once in a 
very blue moon.
Yes, I love to draw, to paint, to experiment with color and paper, to create things "just because." But, all the other stuff that goes with making art a priority in my life - the marinating, the sitting and practicing, the stillness that produces nothing "usable," the hours "wasted" making lines that go nowhere in particular - these are things that my brain was trained (and trained well) to believe were lazy, selfish, unproductive, pointless, and worst of all, sinful. 

Drawing, coloring, and art in general have been passions in my life for as long as I can remember (they hold the keys to my heart's happiness along with tap dancing), but you wouldn't have known it because I never permitted myself the time to make paper messy UNLESS: 
  • I was on vacation away from home (one shouldn't be drawing when there are always chores to be done around the house) 
  • I was on a plane (which was only ever because I was embarking on a vacation) 
  • I was in a doctor's waiting room (because I can not focus on a book or magazine when I am anxious, and all doctors make me anxious)
And, I would probably still be that frustrated artist today, that person who pines away to create something, anything, but never grants themselves the time and space for it, if it were not for one very special cat - my Willow.
A calico cat is tucked on an artist's lap while she is coloring at a table.
It wasn't always possible for me to
accommodate Willow's desire to
sit on me while I worked, but when
I could manage it, I did, even if it 
made me ache the next morning.
Now with that lead in you might be thinking that Willow was my first cat as an adult human (she wasn't - that honor goes to our gorgeous dilute calico, Buffy, who left this world in 2008 but will always be remembered as my soul sister-kitty who made our house a home), or that the Will, as we grew to call her, was the sort of feline who just inspired calm & creativity in all who knew her (she wasn't - in fact one of her favorite things to do was sit on my wrists, hands, or chest, a behavior that made every seated activity difficult). 

Why then was Willow so helpful in putting me on my current creative path? Because she was an extremely difficult and incredibly anxious cat who was only ever truly happy if I was sitting still.

A cat is asleep on her owner's chair, even though there is a matching chair in the middle of the room just for her.
No chair was as good as my
chair to Willow, even if I provided
her with a copy of the EXACT same
 chair I was sitting in. If I left my art
studio for even a moment, I would
return to find Willow had left the chair
I provided for her in favor of the one
I had been was using.
From the day we brought her home, our Willow was completely ruled by her deep fear of being separated from her human family. And, by separated, I mean by us going to the restroom behind closed doors in the actual house where we all lived, leaving the house for a few hours, to say, work or run errands, closing the bedroom door for the night in order to get a good night's sleep. Willow loved her people, and she loved us to be still, right next to her, and if she was denied these things, she caterwauled so loudly that we often feared a neighbor might one day call Animal Protective Services on us! 

How, then, did this high anxiety, demanding cat help release me from all these false beliefs I had about focusing on art and allowing it to become something more than a once-a-year kind of hobby? Well, she didn't do it on purpose, of course; it had more to do with me wanting to be the best feline-guardian I could possibly be. If the only way my Willow was going to find the occasional peace and comfort all cats need/crave was by me sitting still and "doing nothing," well then I needed to find a way for me to enjoy this time, to be okay with this time; I needed to make Willow-time into "productive time." So, my challenging elder kitty helped me see a window of opportunity, a place in my brain where I could safely put time spent drawing and art making that wouldn't feel like a selfish, nonsense waste of my days. I would think to myself, "Willow needs me still for hours at a time to have a good day, so there's no way that sitting here sketching, drawing, and inking is a bad thing!" 
An artist draws a flower in ink at her desk and her cat is asleep on her leg under the desk.
Willow was the only feline I've ever
been comfortable inking next to. I
am incredibly anxious about "messing
up" on the black ink final drafts of
my coloring experiences, but Willow
had a way of invoking calm into my studio
when she slept. I am going to have
to learn to achieve that feeling of
peacefulness on my own now.
Every black lined illustration-to-color I've created since 2016 was done in the company of my sleeping beauty, Willow. And, oh, these were wonderful, peaceful hours of brainstorming, sketching, drafting, and just letting my brain connect with paper! I was creating and my anxious lovie's soul was blissfully calm; it was a win-win of epic proportions for anxious calico kitty and her equally anxious artist human.

On the afternoon of January 30, 2021, my sweet (and stressful, and occasionally infuriating) girl, Willow, left this world.
A calico cat is asleep next to a window with sun shining through. She is on a drawing table covered with stickers.
Willow LOVED being an art studio
cat, and quite frankly, she was very
good at her job! Of my four felines, Willow
was the best at being next to me creating
rather than on top of what I was creating,
an invaluable quality in any studio assistant.
She was petite, she was frightened of absolutely everything, and she was kitten-soft until her dying day, but despite her stature, her nature, and her body's frailty, she left a powerful mark on her world, on her people. 
A woman with a shaved head sits at a desk with a colorful piece of paper and a grumpy looking calico cat.
We knew Willow only had a few months of life left as 
we began the Fall 2020 semester. With my son away
at college in Chicago during this time, I tried my best to 
capture a day-in-the-life-with-Willow photo to text him
every day so he could feel close to her while he was far away.
Here I was was taking note of how unimpressed
Willow was that I had finally finished the cover art for 
Feminism Is For Everyone: A Coloring Book.
To Willow a finished project was a bad thing
because it meant I was about to get up and about!
I am the creator and professional artist that I am because of Willow. No matter how much I wanted to try my hand at getting my ideas out into the world, that was never going to happen if I continued to prioritize the values of others over my own heart's desires and truth. I learned how to be okay with sitting still because Willow needed me to be okay with it; she gave me the "good reason" my perfectionist brain required to begin doing the "sedentary" work a career in art demanded, and I will be forever grateful to her for that. 


In mourning our deep loss of our Willow-kitty, in sharing our frustrating, hilarious, and touching stories of our precious girl together, my family and I realized that to properly say goodbye to such an important creature in our lives, we needed to memorialize her in an open and permanent way, to share with the world much how one small kitty changed the way we three went through the world. 

You've just read my story of how Willow touched my life. What follows below is her story with my son, Sam, and her story with my partner, Steve. I hope you enjoy these short reflective essays from my family and I, that they makes you smile. If you have a few moments we would love it if you shared in the comments below about the important animals in your life and how they have shaped your art and informed how you move through the world.


My Life with Willow

by Samuel M. Johnson-Vrooman

I guess I can’t exactly remember a time without Willow.

A small blonde toddler boy is cuddling with a teeny calico kitten under a teal checker board blanket.
Samuel, age three, and Willow, a bitty kitten we adopted
from the Guadalupe County Humane Society,
were a match made in heaven.
She adored her boy so very much and was the perfect
companion for cuddling and mischief making.

She was just always there - when I read, when I played video games, when I got upset, when I did anything, really. It’s hard to imagine what my childhood would have been like without her. Would I be the same person? I don’t think I would be. Willow would always sit with me while I read, and I think that may have had something to do with why I was such an avid reader as a kid. In some ways, she encouraged it by being an absolute pain when I would want to get up!


Funnily enough, she was not a fan of musical instruments, especially not the percussive ones I played, which made my practice not her favorite thing (I am a music performance major in symphonic percussion at DePaul University right now, and my life has always been about music). This was especially apparent when I would start practicing my drum kit while she was still in my room, unbeknownst to me, asleep in my closet or in my kick drum when I had the head off of it. I would start to play, all I would see was a flash of black and brown run towards my door until she realized it was closed, and then she would wail to be let out. The Willow wail was a very prominent part of my entire family's relationship with her; anything she didn’t like, if she was ever stuck, if she was going to throw up, all triggered such a dramatic meow that it was hard to believe it was a cat making that awful sound. 


But, as bad as her meows were, she never got angry, never bit anyone, and would always forget if anyone did something that she didn’t like. But, if we ever did anything she did like, however, that stuck in her brain forever - the time, the place, the day of the week, everything! We ran on her schedule, not our own. We went to bed when she wanted us to, got up when she wanted us to, watched TV when she felt it was "that time" of the evening. 


A smiling teenage boy holds a video game controller in one hand and is petting a calico cat under her chin with the other.
Willow LOVED it when Sam did his laundry, I mean
played video games! In Willow's perfect world Sam 
would never NOT have been playing video games. She
was the only cat of our four felines that was allowed
 to do this while she was alive.
Sam was her boy, and that was that.

I guess it wasn’t as though we had a cat, but more like we happened to share our house and lives with this other little being, who had her own rituals and opinions and say in what we did, and was just coincidentally a fluffy little cat on the side. 


I’m going to miss you, Willow, but I have a sneaking suspicion you aren’t really so far gone as death would have you seem. You're still going to be with me whenever I do any of the things that you loved to do, I will probably always have to guard my chicken from you, and if I ever leave a glass of water where you might be able to reach, you will probably start drinking it the moment I turn my back on it.


I guess that means I’ll see you when I see you, which is fine by me.



Willow, Willow, Willow

by Steven S. Vrooman


Willow was the world's foremost expert on the face squish. You could tell you were doing what she wanted if she smooshed up beside you on a couch or a chair and planted her face right into your leg. I never quite understood how it was comfortable for her to do that, but it must have been settling. 

A perpetual scene when Steve was
nearing the end of the semester: the
professor on his phone, and the Willow
smooshing herself into his working
environment.

I therefore got pretty good at doing things on my phone instead of a computer, because a phone put me in the right posture for Willow to come in for a landing. Although I'm not sure any of that sounds like an especially good habit to pick up, what she really helped me with was the building of patience for engaged work that I find difficult. 


I have an almost limitless attention span for things I want to be doing, but I have a notorious difficulty with keeping my motivation on other stuff, including grading student work in a timely way. Maybe I'd rather be spending time on the other parts of my professor life. Maybe I have a hard time when I see how often some students seem to be phoning it in. It's hard not to feel discouraged or like I did something wrong. And maybe I did do something wrong! Maybe I need to come at things differently with the next class to get better results! But when you are slogging through a stack of papers, it's hard to keep that perspective. Don't get me wrong. Most student work is great! But it's hard not to fixate on the ones that aren't up to snuff. Of course, the quicker I give students feedback, the better they learn, so you can see the trouble with this lack of pluck in my grading efforts. What Willow did for me was to kind of force me to not give up disheartened before I finished my grading. 


By the way, yes, I can grade on my phone (for better or worse). Even before COVID, I'd transitioned to electronic submission of papers and such. But, before I did that Willow would always find a way to sit on my piles of papers, rarely leaving the piles or the papers as nice as she found them! Once I transitioned to online grading I could do on a phone, it never failed -- I would get to a place where I just had the instinct to stop, I was just tired and distracted and kind of bummed out and then, sploosh, here would come Willow's face with a wet nose, right on the side of my leg. That ability to stick with the stuff I don't want to do is still a hefty challenge for me, but Willow made me better at it. 


I'm definitely not the only teacher whose cats like to "help" with their grading, but I don't know how many cats have ever made their teacher people better at it! We all miss our Willow so much. The process of losing an animal is so hard. But thanks to this small creature whose fur was soft until the end, I'm a lot, lot better at taking time to finish things that are hard, so I think I will be able to find my way through this difficult heartbreak, too. 


Thanks, Willow.

Comments

  1. What sweet accounts of living with Willow. It's obvious she had great impact on your family! Thank you for sharing xxx

    My animals are and were all deeply loved, but there are a few that made it to that extra special place in my heart. Like my Cairn terrier Misty. We'd better had him named 'Mischief'. He was adorable, mischievous and the one that kept me alive, literally, after leaving my first marriage and the cult I grew up in. If he hadn't been there at that moment when I was at my lowest point in life ever, I wouldn't have been here today. He was the one that made me choose living over 'leaving'.

    There are also two felines that made an impact that will last for the rest of my life. Snowy, a perfectly white cat, who brought me presents on a daily basis, usually in the form of (nearly killed) mice and birds, and Lucy, a tiny Bombay kitty who would always be sitting (or hanging) on my shoulder. When I wanted Lucy to get off of me, I just had to bend forward, then she would claw her front paws' nails in my shoulder and drop her hind legs into the air, waiting for her feet to touch the floor. And only then she would let me go. Usually looking at me with a face full of resentment, as if she thought "now really, human, was that necessary?? Did you really need me to leave the very best spot in the world??? Tsssss..." and then she would walk away with her nose up high.

    Oh the memories... there are so many, and all are little treasures I keep in my heart and soul.

    And today there are only one dog and one cat. Scruffy, a stray dog we adopted in 2018 after I had found him (a tiny puppy of 7 or 8 weeks old) outside the fence around our house, and a stray cat, that suddenly appeared in our garden in 2017. We called her Mercy, for two reasons. Just before she arrived we had said goodbye to our car, a Mercedes. Jokingly I called the cat Mercedes, abbreviated to Mercy, to comfort my hubby that at least he still has a Merc left, albeit a caT instead of a caR. And the second reason is that we granted her mercy, by allowing her to live in our garden, eventually even getting proper cat food from us and later by allowing her to live inside our house (and taking it over!!).

    I'm thinking on how they've impacted my art, but I can't think of anything. I think they don't really impact my art, at least not in a clear way that I can pinpoint.

    But they do impact my personality. They keep me sane in hard times, comforted when I feel depressed or sad. They definitely trigger the caring part in me. I love to care for them, hug them, kiss them, caress them and getting so much more in return from them. And maybe that's what reflects back in my art...

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    1. I'm so glad you enjoyed our family's tribute to our Willow kitty! And, thank you so much for sharing your journey with your furry companions! I really enjoyed reading it:) Noting how our pets come into and out of our lives is such an important part of saying goodbye to these special creatures! <3

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