Art, hobbies, and remembering beloved pets

I saw the most wonderful art exhibition a couple years ago at a gallery run by the local council here in Bayside suburbs in Melbourne. Pets are people too was an exhibition of artworks made about pets. Some of the artwork wasn’t the most technically proficient, but what was true of all of it, was that it was heartfelt and captured something of the private, domestic relationship we have with our pets. The very close, personal bond that we share, but that can be really hard to adequately convey in words and which becomes even harder to express when we lose our pets.

Exhibition catalogue from the Pets are people too exhibition. Artwork reads "It's normal to be on antidepressants. Heaps of my friends R. I couldn't sleep. Between 2am and 5am, I sat in the loungeroom with the dogs. We became the same. I was covered in their fur. I hugged them and they made me feel better. It's ok."
Mathew Gove, Purrfect massage 2017, and Anastasia Klose, It’s normal to be on antidepressants 2017.

Sadly, losing our pets is part of the deal we sign up for. To get to share our lives with our beloved furry friends means to go through the whole cycle of life and death, and the latter part is especially painful.

I hadn’t yet lost a pet that I was still close to as an adult by the time I saw the exhibition, but the works touched me nonetheless. Whenever I’ve travelled overseas or interstate, I think about my pets, not just for the love I hold for them, or their companionship, but that the world I inhabit with them captures the very essence of what the concept of “home” feels like to me.

We’ve since lost two pets. One suddenly in August of 2019, my beloved Harry, who used to sleep in the crook of my elbow or sometimes right up in my armpit, particularly in the cooler months. If I stayed up late, he’d come over and meow at me until I’d go to bed with him. He was a curious, gentle and mysterious cat. Whenever he came inside, it was always as if he’d just returned from some adventure and wanted to tell us all about it. That adventure was probably sleeping in the neighbours’ bushes, but an adventure all the same. Losing him was heartbreaking beyond words, but I don’t regret a minute I spent with him, and the hurt of losing him was worth it for all the time we got to spend together.

In April of this year, we lost another cat, Gizmo. The matriarch of our household, an elderly cat who ran the show, and would let you know all about it. With a heart as big as her meow, she sounded grumpy, but she’d purr at the faintest touch, scream for a lap to sit on, and tap you like you were misbehaving when she wanted a pat. In short, we loved her.

Losing her wasn’t sudden. She’d been old for the past six years; we’d been through so many times over the years wondering if it was the end, but she’d bounce back. In August of last year we nearly lost her, and she spent two nights at the vet, but pulled through. The last eight months, and this summer just past, were a gift and a wonderful opportunity to enjoy our time together. Lazy days of her curled up in the sun, and evenings curled up on our laps while we read or watched TV or a movie.

All these things are simple, mundane even to describe. Yet those artists at that local exhibition managed to convey the depth of feeling of these moments alone with our animals. Our pets share our inner world with us, so are very deeply part of our families.

During the pandemic, one of the things we’ve gotten into has been watching YouTubers that focus on arts and crafts and making things. A recent favouite has been watching Christine McConnell and her incredibly detailed and imaginative creations. But one video in particular, where she spent a month doing the most exquisite oil painting of her beloved cat who passed away really resonated. It’s well worth a watch.

For me, I’ve been enjoying returning to drawing from time to time, for the joy of it, and also to engage with my memory of Harry and the feeling of being with him. It’s a feeling I carry with me for the rest of my life, just as now Gizmo is a part of me. And I find great comfort in thinking of and imagining them.

I’ve managed to come up with a kind of cartoon likeness for Harry, that isn’t quite him, but is also very much his energy, and I love immersing myself in that when I draw him. It’s a delightful blend of hobby and artistic practice for me, something with no goal other than to enjoy making a little drawing and thinking of my furry friend. Seeing that exhibition a couple of years ago helped unlock the idea of drawing for the sake of exploring this connection to a memory or feeling, rather than needing to turn everything I make into a proper “project”. And for that I’ve enjoyed making things a whole lot more than I used to.

I look forward now to doing the same with Gizmo and my memories and thoughts of her. She was a very unusual cat, and I think it’s going to be a bigger challenge trying to capture her likeness, or a sense of her. But doing so will be part of the healing process, and eventually just part of life, looking back on what at the time was our good and long lives together, but that in hindsight was always so finite.

Anyway, pets are the best, even if they’re little heartbreakers. And our lives are so much richer for their presence, even once they’re gone. But, like the brochure that the vets gave us when we said goodbye to Gizmo tells us, they’re still with us, just a little further away.