Be The Creature

During my recent visit to LA I stopped by the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum again and this time I made sure to take in the Ice Age Encounters stage show where the audience is transported back to the prehistoric past to meet one of its most fierce and well-known predators – a life-size adult Saber-Toothed Cat.

The Natural History Museum (NHM) and The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum, worked together with Jim Henson’s Creature Shop to recreate and bring to life this long extinct animal. The result is an entertaining and educational live performance that is great for people of all ages and, I will admit to being as excited as some of the youngest members in the audience upon seeing the Saber-toothed Cat (Smilodon Fatalis) puppet, or creature, for the first time.

The puppet is undoubtedly the star of the show so it could be very easy to overlook the fact that it takes a team of people to bring her (in case you were wondering the creature is a ‘she’ and her nickname is Cali) to life.

To find out more about what goes into the show what is it like to be the creature I interviewed puppeteer and member of the performing arts team Betsy Zajko, who literally walks in the paws of the cat. Betsy has been puppeteering the cat for just over six years and is part of a team of performers who work at both LA’s NHM and the La Brea Tar Pits.

Q How did you end up puppeteering Saber-Toothed Cat for the Ice Age Encounters show?

BZ I saw the job listing on-line where a lot of performers go to look for work and the job posting had a list of skill sets that fit everything I could do. They needed someone who could host, work with kids, operate heavy machinery without much visibility, and who doesn’t have a problem with claustrophobia. With a background in circus arts, theater, hosting, writing for NPR and CBS I had all the skills that matched to the job description, so I put together an audition.

Q What was the audition like for this role?

BZ At that time we were asked to write a short show under five minutes and they gave us less than a day to put it together and to demonstrate physical stamina. I did a presentation on centrifugal force, because at that time I was doing fire dancing in LA on the side, and I used this tool called poi to demonstrate centrifugal force and spinning cups of water around in the air without water falling out. It was a short presentation and then the physical skill set was mainly strength and flexibility. This is the first puppet I ever operated but with my training and background, which included trapeze, fire dancing and stilt walking, I thought I could handle her. I got the job and then learned how to puppeteer.

Q With limited visibility how did you learn to operate the creature?

BZ  The space we perform in is a small stage and like any performance space you learn blocking. We can vary the blocking but the basic points are set and once I learned my space, I could probably do the show with my eyes closed because I know so well how many steps it takes to get to certain places on stage… as long as the set pieces are in the same place. There is some visibility though, imagine crawling on all fours on the two front legs of the cat (which are my hands) I can see in between the paws on the floor and, about a foot more in front.

Q Did you study big cat movements in order to make the performance more realistic?

BZ Yes, we took several trips to the zoo to study big cats, took video, used YouTube as resource to watch animal movement and also practiced with people who specialize in creature performing. There is actually a person in town who taught the full suit creature performers in films at one time and also people on staff like Eli Presser our Technical Coordinator who is also a creature performer.

Q What was the greatest challenge learning to perform as the cat?

BZ The greatest challenge is when you are new to the creature, but after 6 years I am comfortable inside of her. Initially the hardest part was trying to figure out what that creature is capable of and what your body can sustain. The first time I climbed inside before she had skin we were trying to figure out what type of stilts would work on the arms because they were still working out how to design the arms. They had a couple of prototypes but we eventually ended up with ones that were most ergonomically easy to work with. We work together with the person (Remote Control Operator) who operates the animatronics in her face, I do the body and the second puppeteer operates her face, this is different from other creatures that we operate at the NHM where the person inside operates everything.

For me learning to operate the animatronics in her face was another challenge and since I had no experience in gaming or using remote controls, as many of my colleagues do, I had to learn that along the way.

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Remote Control Operator Jamie Lozano (Left) Quadruped (Saber-Toothed Cat) Performer Betsy Zajko (Right) with the Creature

Q Was the creature designed around your body?

BZ  They have to make a mold in order to create the creature and my body was used to make the mold. Although I am partial to her, as I also love cats, I can’t claim her as my own,  but I have seen a mold of my body at the Jim Henson Creature Shop! When the cat was being built getting the mold of my body took a long time, and the plaster heats up around your body so it gets really hot, but you couldn’t move or you would crack the plaster.

Q Why do you think they picked a Saber-Toothed Cat to represent Ice Age animals?

BZ She is the star of the Ice Age, the most ferocious creature and when you think of the Ice Age she is pretty iconic. Although kids refer to her as a Saber-Toothed Tiger there where in fact no actual Tigers back then, so one of our teaching points that we try to reiterate here at the Tar Pits is that she is a Saber-Toothed Cat.

Q Was it important to educate yourself about the science behind the subject?

BZ  It’s important when you are a performer at an institution like a natural history museum as you want to be able to answer the questions people have. So I got a list of what the basic questions might be like her scientific name Smilodon Fatalis, the fact that the saber teeth were eight inches long and how fossils are preserved, and made sure to study them. With the cats appearance, and since we have no idea if they were spotted or stripped, we do comparative anatomy with creatures that are similar phenotypes today and we make a best guess based on foliage of that time of what she may have looked like

Q Why do you think the Ice Age Encounters show is a good way to educate people on prehistoric animals?

BZ Whenever we do a show you can always tell there is an impact based on how the audience reacts with surprise when they see the cat for the first time and also when they hear scientific information that the host presents. I remember seeing a puppet show in elementary school as a child and can still recall that show, the puppet and the name of it. Art is a great way to teach and it lasts and, art forms that teach kids about science stick.

Quick facts about the puppet:

  • The person, puppeteer or Quadruped Performer, inside takes up about two-thirds of the cat. The final third, the neck and head, are the animatronics part which are operated by the Remote Control operator
  • Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created the cat but mechanical repairs are now done by the museum’s Technical Coordinator Eli Presser and, the pelt is maintained by Quadruped Performer Betsy Zajko
  • While it is called a ‘puppet’ it is a very technically sophisticated piece of engineering. The remote servos inside are military grade, the same type which operate drones
  • The man who designed the technical part of the puppet was recruited by the military, but he preferred making creatures
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Making friends with the star of show

A big thank you goes out to The La Brea Tar Pits and Museum for granting behind the scenes access at the Ice Age Encounters show; to puppeteer and Quadruped Performer Betsy Zajko for taking time to talk to me; and, Supervisor Brian Meredith for helping to arrange the interview.

As mentioned there is a whole team of performers that work to bring the Ice Age Encounters show to life, upfront and behind the scenes which is worth noting. Each member of the performing arts team listed here play different roles at both the Tar Pits and at the NHM.

  • Ilana Gustafson – Manager
  • Brian Meredith – Supervisor (T.rex performer)
  • Eli Presser – Technical Coordinator (T.rex performer)
  • Jamie Lozano – Remote Control Operator (T.rex performer)
  • Quadruped Performers – Betsy Zajko, Jonathan C. K. Williams, Brittaney Wyszynski, Lisa McNeely, Baxley Andresen, Shannon Fitzpatrick,Tara Spadaro, Mark Whitten, Jaquita Ta’le; (T.rex Performers) Robert George, Brett Horn, Carlos Jackson, Andrew Eldredge

The One-of-a-Kind Cat Book

The-One-of-a Kind Cat Book by Ciye Cho, is 127 pages of cat stories brought to life with 50+ illustrations. While it seems to be geared towards the Young Adult (YA) market, once I finished reading it, I could easily see adults of all ages enjoying the colorful artwork and entertaining story lines.

Ciye Cho – About the book“THE ONE-OF-A-KIND CAT BOOK is a whimsical treat for cat lovers everywhere. Dive into its pages to meet Catalina the narcissistic movie star, Kit the steampunk genius, and Guillaume the macaron chef. Browse through letters, notes, and photos to learn about mystery cats from Svalbard and the Amazon. Follow a detective as he unravels the crimes of “Murder Kitties.”

The OOAK Cat Book is a grown-up picture book full of modern themes: a shameless search for fame (or infamy), an obsession with true crime, and our constant need for adventure and kawaii cats. The felines here will guide you to places like Paris, Varanasi,
Woodstock, and the Great Barrier Reef.”

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Front Cover

I was curious to find out more about the illustrated book and Ciye was kind enough to answer a few questions and elaborate on the story and style!

Q Why did you choose to focus on cats for this novel?

CC I have been fascinated with cats for quite some time. They are creatures of great whimsy, beauty, and majesty.

Q Is there anything any particular about the colors/style used in this novel?

CC I tried to create hyper-expressive, super kawaii cats. I’m also a devotee to all things whimsical, so there’s a lot of rainbow hues, pastel colors, busy patterns, and playful imagery.

Q What type of cat lover are you trying to appeal to?

CC All sorts. There are thirty-three different cats in this book, from murderous moggies to famous felines. I’d like to believe that there is something here for everyone. Oh, and there are also some exotic cats in the mix (there’s one in particular that should interest in you, since you often talk about conservation and wild cats).

Q What is the inspiration for the characters in this novel?

CC Firstly, I was inspired by the beauty and wonder of cats. However, on a much broader level, much of the book is a statement on pop culture. For example, modern-day society is obsessed with the concept of fame and the pursuit of fame at all costs. Catalina and tricky, who feature prominently in the book, are perfect purrrrsonifications of these issues. I would like to think that the OOAK Cat Book is a kooky reflection on our strange new world.

Q Is there a message you are trying to convey in your novel, or is
this purely for fun?

CC There are themes in this book (fame, infamy, crime, wonder, love, adventure) that should hopefully resonate with readers. But above all else, I just wanted to draw super cute, super whimsical cats. It relaxes me to look at pictures of fancy felines, and I know that many people feel the same way.

Q Do you have any cats of your own?

CC I was surrounded by cats when I was younger, but I currently don’t have any. However, if we’re counting imaginary pets, I probably have a dozen of those.

Q anything else you would like readers to know?

CC The One-of-a-Kind Cat Book is a story told through a unique mix of letters, postcards, emails, photos, and other clues. Many of these collected tales are mini adventures that you’ll need to piece together with your imagination.

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More images from the book can be viewed here

The book is broken down into 16 “experiences” with each character, relaying their story via different themes such as a Magazine cover, written letters, an iPad, email, postcards and even song lyrics. The attention to detail that has gone into crafting unique themes is appreciated and shows that a lot of thought not only went into the stories and characters, but also the actual illustrations, which could clearly stand on their own as art pieces.

The beautiful and bold use of color help to capture your imagination and work perfectly to bring the sophisticated, intelligent and highly detailed stories to life. One of my personal favorites is the illustration below and the story behind this lovely exotic cat!

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Overall, the book is a visually appealing, unique and fun read that will surprise you with its carefully thought out stories. It makes a great gift for the cat lover looking for something a little different, or that already has everything!

Ciye Cho is a graphic designer who lives and works in Australia and writes YA novels in his spare time. The One-of-a-Kind Cat Book is available in eBook format for $3 and may be purchased directly here.

Thank you to writer Ciye Cho for contacting me and providing a copy of the novel for review.

LA Graffiti – Cat Style

In anticipation of my trip to CatConLA later this week I will be featuring all things cat from California. While doing research, I came across an older news story featuring awesome cat graffiti that started appearing all over Los Angeles freeways and streets a number of years back. I don’t know if any of this still exists, but you can bet I will be keeping an eye out. What can I say, cats really do make everything better, even if only for a brief time.

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All images from Graffhead.com unless otherwise noted

Sometime in late 2009 people noticed cat images popping up all over the city, including freeway underpasses and the streets. According to GraffHead.com cats would appear and nobody, including city officials, could figure out who was painting them. By the looks of some of the locations the talented individual took some big risks to get his worked noticed.

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This is pretty insane, right in the middle of the freeway.

It February of 2010 it seems that there must have been some sort of graffiti war which resulted in some of the cats being painted over, but Graff Head reported the cats came back with a vengeance.

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The Cats Strike Back. Why would anyone paint over the cats?!

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It seems every cat has their day and sadly the graffiti stopped appearing and was removed from the streets and freeways. No new cats were reported but a few never before seen photos  appeared.

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Police finally caught up with and booked Rick Ordonez, the man suspected of the cat tagging spree. A graphic designer and former skateboard shop owner who went by the name Atlas. No surprise he kept cats as pets as was a cat lover. After being sentenced to 90 days for felony vandalism, LA’s Mid-City Arts approached him to do an art show, which he agreed to do while remaining out of the spotlight. When asked Why Cats? He simply answered “I love cats.”

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Vidoe of Cat Tagger – Kitty Litter – Los Angeles Graffiti

 

 

The Panthers and The Nudes

Two bronze sculptures that just went on display at Cambridge University’s Fitzwilliam Museum in the UK seemed to have finally given up their secret.

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Nude bacchants riding panthers” about 3 feet tall each (c.1506–08) (all images © Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, unless noted otherwise)

Which one of these is not like the others. Proving who created this work, also referred to as the “Panther-Riding Drunks”, was long debated but ultimately the honors have gone to  Michelangelo one of the most recognizable and famous artists of the Italian Renaissance. However, when looking at his works like the “David” or the “Sistine Chapel” many refused to credit him as the artist that created these sculptures.

The Bronzes have been “attributed to various circles and schools since their first documented appearance, in 1878 in the collection of Baron Adolphe de Rothschild. The sculptures have been exhibited only a handful of times…but based on new scientific evidence, as well as close analysis…and an invaluable clue from a sheet of one of his disciples’ sketches, Cambridge University professor emeritus Paul Joannides and Victoria Avery, the keeper of applied arts at the Fitzwilliam, have attributed the puzzling pair to the Renaissance master.”

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Unknown draughtsman after Michelangelo Buonarroti, “Sheet of studies with the Virgin embracing the Infant Jesus” (c.1508) (Musée Fabre, Montpellier; ©)

Researchers Avery and Joannides state this drawing, made by an unknown artist after originals by Michelangelo, records the nude riding a panther on the lower right hand corner and “proves that Michelangelo was actively engaged with the very unusual subject of muscular nude men riding panthers and, he was doing so in the first eight years of the sixteenth century.

The work depicts a definite pagan subject  – Bacchus, the Roman God of wine, celebration, nudity and drunkenness.

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Detail of “Nude bacchants riding panthers” (c.1506–08)

While the figures seem to clash, anatomical and well muscled male nudes with stylized panthers that look like they were created from a mix of mythical felines, the researchers say that they way they fit together proves this work was created and intended to be a cohesive unit.

A beautifully odd albeit slightly humorous piece that may be Michelangelo’s only surviving metal sculptures

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Detail of “Nude bacchants riding panthers” (c.1506–08)

The length of time it took to credit Michelangelo with this work may have been partly due to the artists own documented views on bronze sculpture he had later in life. He did not look favorably on the medium and “classed it with painting, and was thus of a lower order than carving.”  Michelangelo’s aesthetic disclaimer had been “taken as gospel by the vast majority of his biographers and commentators” leading most to believe that Michelangelo was not a maker of bronzes.

Cats and Art – They Choose You

Cat parents everywhere understand that it’s the cat who actually chooses us. A connection is made during the first meeting of cat and human making us part of each others world. The art project aptly titled They Choose You is based on this very idea and experience. Together we create a social circle and community, intertwined, felines will be our companions and teachers.

They Choose You is a “participatory, ephemeral art installation…a social mixer–for cats and people” taking place over one weekend in Toronto that will feature rescue cats, for adoption, from Toronto Cat Rescue (TCR).

Toronto based Artist Melanie Lowe seeks to highlight how we relate to other living creatures, in this case cats, in contemporary life. “They Choose You is art as activism, sincere and absurd at the same time, with a motive somewhere between a cat lady’s dream and a creative way to build community. The precarious lives of the cats are intertwined with the humans who inhabit the same city, allowing for an experiential connection in a shared space, beyond the walls of the animal shelter.

I first met Melanie at a similar and successful art event in 2012 and reached out to her to find out more about They Choose You.

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They Choose You – by Melanie Lowe “Ephemeral art installation featuring rescue cats.” November 22-23, 2014 at Artscape Youngplace in Toronto.

When did you first decide you wanted to combine your love for art and cats?

ML I started to think about cats in my own artworks after adopting Tobias from Toronto Animal Services and bringing him home to live with our other two cats. I started reading more about animal behaviour and really paying attention to how the cats interact. It is quite interesting to watch the cats meet, play and get reacquainted with each other.

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Tobias – photo Melanie Lowe

ML My artwork has always been about how we relate to each other in contemporary life and in the last couple of years, it has expanded to how we relate to all living creatures. It makes sense to me…the animals we live with are members of our family, non-human persons really!

What is the biggest challenge/reward in organizing They Choose You?

ML I would say the biggest challenge is coming up with artworks that are both aesthetically pleasing and safe for the cats to interact with. I was looking for an exhibition venue that would be open to the idea of having cats and a space that could be easily modified, open, accessible, yet safe and enjoyable for the cats and people coming to meet them.

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Spend Sunday afternoon crafting with feline friends and artist Emily Gove. Craft your own cat pouch, kitty brooch or crinkle blob cat toy. Register via email with Emily at emily.gove@gmail.com.  Cost $25/person.

You are partnering with TCR for this event, why did you choose this rescue group?

ML I decided to work with TCR, who I also volunteer with as an adoption screener,  because they are an organization that has done many adoption events and is also open to new ways of engaging the public. Volunteers from TCR will be present at all times during the event to oversee any adoptions.

From the perspective of a cat parent what is the biggest challenge homeless or stray cats in Toronto face?

ML There are so many homeless and stray cats in Toronto. It is very important that people keep their cats indoors and have them spayed/neutered, but quite often this doesn’t happen. As much as I love stopping to chat with a friendly cat on a neighborhood street, I’d rather their owners keep them inside!

What is your favorite work of art featuring cats?

ML There are so many. I would say British artist Louis Wain. He is so well-known for his images of cats!

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Artist Louis Wain with cat

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Katzen – Louis Wain

What is the most important thing you would like people to take away from They Choose You ?

ML I would like people who attend They Choose You to come away with a positive experience and be present in the moment–with cats. We can learn so much from them and it makes sense to me to create a space where the cats and people who inhabit the same city can come together. And of course, if they decide to adopt a cat, that’s fantastic! Some people will be coming because they adore cats and already have two or three at home. I’m all for that. It is a social event for cats and humans!

They Choose You is on Indiegogo and the campaign runs until November 30 with funds being raised to cover cost of materials, production, labour and transportation costs for the art installation. $5 donations get you a big thanks at the event and online, $60 gets you a hand crafted scratching post and cool cat toys.

This free event is happening November 22-23 at Artscape Youngplace in Toronto and more info can be found on the They Choose You events Facebook page.