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Feline companion inspires several hundred works of art

Screenshot 2022-06-30 130324.jpg
Physician and artist, Judith Peterson sitting with her muse and feline companion Chai.

A cat’s eyes. Its whiskers. The way it gracefully springs into action to attack its toy prey – Judith Peterson loves studying her cat and companion, Chai. Since 2017, the Sioux Falls physician and artist has created several hundred works of art inspired by her feline friend.

“I think when I started with it, I was so struck by these whiskers that go out to here. And I’m looking at her and she’s looking back at me. But the way she looks, is her eyes. And then she has her scent, she can smell everything. Then she has her vision, and she’s seeing. She’s looking at me in such a complicated way. And I’m looking at her. And then her whiskers - to me they just kind of radiate this kind of presence. Because who knows where she ends? She is like this big ball, I mean, there is a cat under all that fur. There’s a lot to her,” Judith Peterson said.

Sitting in her Sioux Falls’ home, physician and artist, Judith Peterson describes her muse and feline companion Chai.

It’s been nearly five years since she adopted Chai as a kitten from the local animal shelter - and the long-haired, tortoiseshell-colored companion with her emerald eyes and long whiskers continues to capture Peterson’s attention and inspire her work as an artist.

To date, Chai is the subject of several hundred works created by Peterson using pencil, pen, marker and numerous other inks. She named the collection Cat Tiger Cat.

“I started on postcards, for a long time I drew on postcards, 4-by-6, and I used whatever. I used pen, I used pencil, I used marker. Then, I went to 8-by-10, then I went to bigger, 18-by-22, 18-by-24. Right now, I’m working on 22-by-30 Fabriano paper,” Peterson said.

“The thing that really hooked me, the reason I wanted to do this show, is she was saying even when she flies, any time she has a couple down minutes, she grabs any piece of material around and makes a cat drawing or a cat painting. There is something really beautiful about that relentless pursuit,” Cody Henrichs said.

Cody Henrichs is the curator for the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls where a small selection of works from Cat Tiger Cat is on display in the Shulz Gallery for the public to enjoy.

Henrichs describes Peterson’s technique, as he reflects on the pieces depicting Chai in an array of poses.

“When you look at gesture, which is the way I prefer to describe mark making, the gesture of a mark is either slow or fast. Everything in the gestures she is making feels very fast. They are cat movements. They are elegant and quick,” Henrichs said.

Cat Tiger Cat is one of many collections Peterson has worked on. She has been creating art since childhood.

Back in her home studio with her ever-present companion, Chai by her side, Peterson explains that in addition to helping her capture Chai’s movements and moments with Chai, the act of creating art helps her process life.

“In these drawings of Chai, it was a way to think deeply about things. It translates. You are thinking deeply about this and your hope is you will be more thoughtful about the next time something doesn’t go as planned according to whatever scenario you have in your head, you can more creatively respond to it,” Peterson said.

When it comes to being Peterson’s muse, Chai seems to enjoy the attention.

“She loves interacting with the paintings. That is one of the most interesting things for me. So, I would start drawing her and she would look at it, she would check out the paint. She was interested in the brushes. And I thought, “well, if she bites it, it’s all part of the process,” Peterson said.

With Chai as a constant source of inspiration Peterson says the Cat Tiger Cat collection continues to grow.

See Cat Tiger Cat for yourself now through June 19 at the Washington Pavilion in Sioux Falls.

Lura Roti is a freelance reporter working with SDPB.