Artist Gary Baseman on Late Cat Blackie & New Kitten Bosko
“Blackie was a friend and a collaborator. I never saw him as a pet and I don’t see Bosko as one either — they are family members.”
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It has been a little over a year since LA-based, self-described “pervasive artist” Gary Baseman lost his beloved cat, Blackie. In the 15 years that they were together, Blackie was perhaps the most prolific character in the Emmy and BAFTA award-winning artist’s oeuvre, featuring in myriad works of art, as well as inspiring creepy-cute characters Ahwroo, who draws blood when he wants affection, and ChouChou, who takes away negative energy and hate. He even starred in his own Instagram series “The Blackie the Cat Show,” in experiential projects like The Purr Room, a sound bath installation featuring Blackie’s “triple purr” recorded by Money Mark, and stood in for Baseman himself when depicted in his characteristic striped hat and red leather jacket.
Blackie’s death has had a profound impact on Baseman, for whom the relationship was one of the most significant of his life. “Blackie was a friend and a collaborator,” he told me. Just a month earlier, the artist held a memorial to celebrate the one-year anniversary of Blackie’s death. In adherence with California Covid protocols, the event was held outside and attended by only 100 people, although Baseman would have happily have welcomed 10 times that number. Even after his death, Blackie continues to inspire Baseman’s work, most recently a book, the illustrations for which he finished not 10 hours before our call. We talked about Blackie’s legacy, his mischievous new kitten Bosko, and his hopes for mankind.
Congratulations on finishing the illustrations for your new book!
Yes! I was up to like one o’clock last night finishing them up.
When will we be able to read it?
Good question! I’m hoping it will be out early next year. We’ve had a few missteps with a few major publishers. It doesn’t fit within the normal format. It’s not a kid’s book, per se. It’s written by my cat [Blackie] and there’s a certain darkness in it. But I think it’s a story that needs to be told about Blackie, his family, and his heritage.
What do you mean when you say Blackie wrote it?
That’s exactly what I mean. Blackie and I were partners for about 15 years. For 12 of those years he had a ritual — one I was naive to, because I thought it was a game — where he would knock these red elephants off the bedside table. When I traveled and found red elephants I would [bring them home and] add them to the grouping and he would continue to knock them down.
After about 12 years, he opened up to me and told me that this was actually a ritual about his family. This was around the same time that my father passed away and I was doing my own searching of my heritage, trying to understand my background. Both of my parents were Holocaust survivors and I was the first in my family to go back to their hometowns in what was then Eastern Poland. As I opened up about this story, [Blackie] opened up to me about his own heritage. And after that, he stopped knocking down the elephants. But getting the book done has taken a lot longer than I thought.
Why is that?
I worked in editorial before I was a painter, you know. My first big job was the cover of The New York Times Book Review and then I did Rolling Stone, Time Magazine, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, Forbes, Entertainment Weekly...you name it! So, if you give me a deadline, I’ll hit it. But if I give myself a deadline, no matter how real I tell myself it is, something deep in my soul always says it’s a false deadline.
And I’ve written other books — little picture books and things — that have never been published, and the added pressure of it being for Blackie. I’m hoping all that will change once the book is out because I have a few other stories and family stories I’d love to tell, and I’d like to start getting those published as well.
I imagine Blackie’s death must have made it difficult to finish the book as well.
His passing did hit me really hard. I don’t believe I’ve ever been closer to another living soul. When you live with someone for 15 years... Because I’m someone who works from home, we spent all our time together and he inspired me so much. He had so many different talents and skills and insights.
I’m working on an exhibition in New Zealand right now that deals with guilt and loss and mourning and memory and memorial. It’s been delayed twice because of the pandemic, but I’m hoping it will be done next year.
I was so surprised when I lost Blackie. Even though he was older and sick those last six months, when, during the pandemic, I was feeding him every hour on the hour, I was always hoping he’d gain his weight back [and get better]. He tried staying alive as long as he could for me. For our friendship. I was going through one of the most stressful periods of my life when he found me. I was in the middle of a horrible divorce — stressed and scared and dealing with a lot of guilt around the failure of the marriage — and he could sense that and used his powers to help calm me down. He would climb up and sit on my chest — this giant, fluffy, 20-lb cat, and take away all my fear and insecurity. Pretty amazing.
Have you always been a cat person?
I didn’t realize how much of a cat person I was until recently, when I was helping my sister with her family albums, and in almost every picture [of me as a kid], I was with a cat. But I have an affection and a love for all animals. I’ve tried to maintain that with humans, but it doesn’t work so well.
Why do you think that is?
With humans, there’s more evil and anger and hate. And I’m hoping for mankind to be positive, but we’ve seen such darkness, so I’m a little more wary of humans than I am of other animals.
Blackie was black, obviously, and so is your current cat, Bosko. Have you always had a preference for black cats?
When I moved back to Los Angeles, to Hancock Park, and started working in TV, there were four black cats that adopted [me and my wife]. Two of the girls got pregnant immediately, so soon we had 13 feral black cats and kittens. We got them fixed, found homes for most of them, and kept four — I guess that is when I developed my affection for black cats.
Then, when I was going through my divorce and moved into the place I’m living now, I thought I would get at least one of the cats in the settlement, but I didn’t get any. My favorite of those cats was this 20-lb cat called Abracadabra. And along came my [new] neighbor’s cat (who was also 20 lbs), named Blackie, so he sort of adopted me. The only black cat I ever chose was Bosko.
How did you find him?
I was mourning Blackie, and this woman who is a fan of my work was fostering three kittens. She sent me photos and one of them looked exactly like a baby Blackie, only she was a girl. I was the first person outside of the foster family to interact with them, so they were hissing at me, but in the way kittens hiss — sort of cute and playful. But every time I came to visit, she seemed more and more frightened, which concerned me because Blackie was always such a friendly cat...
Blackie could be scrappy too, though. I saw a video on Instagram where he bit your nose and he really got you. I mean, you were bleeding a lot.
Yeah, he got my nose 24 times. That’s just one of many videos I have of him biting me. I mean, I’m not necessarily a fan of being scarred, but with Blackie it was worth it. I mean, he inspired so much of my work, so…
With this kitten, though, I started to feel like I was trying to force something because she looked so much like Blackie and I was just missing him so much. On my fourth visit, I decided to spend some time just with her brother, Inkstone, whose adopters never showed up. [It turned out] he had just been doing whatever she did — hissing and running — but when I met with him alone, he became Bosko. He became my cat.
And you’ve begun incorporating Bosko into your work now, too.
Whoever is in my life [finds their way into my work]. From the beginning, I would draw Bosko and I would see the things he would play with and be drawn to. When I was clearing out my childhood home, he developed attachments to some of my old toys, and I imagined him becoming friends with this Snoopy plush and this bunny plush. And his favorite things in the world are these hair bands, but we call them halos, and he likes to baptize them by dropping them in his water. And he’s actually taken the story of the red elephants and expanded on it in his own way, so he knocks down the red elephants [like Blackie used to].
He sounds quite mischievous.
He loves to jump on me. In many ways, I feel like his jungle gym. My back is completely scarred up right now [from him climbing on my shoulders] and there are quite a few of my art pieces that have been scratched up by him. I think about fixing them or starting over, but it’s sort of his way of collaborating with me. And you know, he’s broken some very valuable things as well, things I love, but, at the same time, if it happens, it happens. They’re not more important in my life than he is, and I’m not going to keep him out of certain rooms [for their sake]. I’m trying to teach him a certain kind of respect for these things, but he’s also just sort of a crazy guy.
I notice you never use the word “pet” when talking about your cats.
Yeah, I never really saw Blackie as a pet and I don’t see Bosko as one either. In many ways they are just family members. Friends. I think a lot of people are starting to understand this now as more and more people have begun working from home during the pandemic and developed even stronger bonds with their animal companions.
Bosko and I have been together for about eight months now and when I draw him, I have specific clothes and items with him and it’s like I’m trying to understand him and the roles he plays in my life. Like, I put him in [school] boy’s clothes because he’s like a little kid. And he’s different from Blackie, you know? He doesn’t speak the same way and he doesn’t have the same purr and we play different games. So with him, I’m creating a whole new set of clothes for him to wear [in my drawings] and learning who he is. And I guess it’s just like any relationship. You approach it with a sense of respect and trust and love and just see what happens.
Baseman’s new project, Nightmares of Halloween Past, is a book of eerie, All Hallows’ Eve-themed vintage photographs gathered from flea markets and thrift shops.
Charles Manning is an actor, writer, and fashion/media consultant living in New York City with his two cats, Pumpkin and Bear. Follow him on Instagram @charlesemanning.