Have you ever wondered what’s up with all the painted cats in downtown Miami? Writer Autumn Giles explains…
Miami-based artist Marianne Collins remembers getting up around 5:30 a.m. and painting until it got too hot each day for months on storefronts, doorways, planters, and trash bins around Miami’s historic downtown. Her objective? To line the streets with 121 original painted cats and other creatures.
“I had felt a civic duty to the Town of Miami in trying to add a little pizazz to the community,” Collins says, explaining the impetus for her project, which started in the spring of 1993 and continued through the later part of the year.
Collins, who came to Miami in the early ‘90s from Washington state has painted on many different surfaces including the side of a diesel truck, a 150 pound slab of sandstone (her favorite), and over 2,000 copper splashes.
She figured it would be enjoyable for Miami residents and also attract visitors to Miami’s downtown.
“I spoke to a number of business owners, and they said ‘go for it,’” she recalls.
Collins explains that the concept was simple. For the price of $25, she would paint a cat on their building. She acknowledges that the price might seem low, but calls the project “a labor of love.”
“Everybody was very kind about it and thought it was great,” Collins recalls. Collins worked with many business owners on custom cats. For example, at Julie’s Sewing Corner, Collins a painted cat with a quilted vest.
Collins clarifies that 121 refers to the total number of painted figures around town, the majority of which are cats, with the exception of occasional non-feline animals accompanying the cats. However, “nobody said they didn’t want a cat,” according to Collins.
In the fall of 2003, Collins’ cats inspired a cat-themed art festival called “Purrs in the Park,” in Miami Veteran’s Park. The festival had a great turnout and included a chili cook-off, walking tours of the cats and Miami’s historic downtown, and an art show.
Other artists have painted cats in homage to Collins around Miami, including what she calls “a purple avant garde kitty” at Miami Art Works, as well as a cat done by an anonymous artist in Sykes Alley.
“It looked like someone did it in a hurry, but it was kind of cute,” says Collins of the alley cat.
It may come as a surprise that Collins really likes cats, but is somewhat allergic to them, so she has dogs at home. Still, she had a practical reason for choosing cats to paint around Miami. Collins had worked larger murals in Wilcox, AZ, and in Washington State and saw the advantages to doing smaller scale paintings. “They’re all the same size and shape,” she explains, “and they fit almost anywhere.”
She was typically able to complete a cat in two or three hours, although sometimes the fancier breeds would throw her for a loop. Collins process for painting the cats was a combination of using photo references and painting from her imagination.
“I tore apart a lot of cat magazines,” says Collins. She manipulated the cuttings to get the cats’ overall shapes before painting.
“It certainly has followed me over the years,” she says of the cats’ legacy.
Collins recalls an animal control worker in Miami telling her that he’d go to where the cats were painted looking for stray dogs because they’d often be there barking at the cats. She took this as a great compliment.
She is unsure how many of the original 121 remain, but knows some were lost when planters were removed. One of her favorites was on a planter that got hit and was later taken out, although she’s also fond of the cat on the planter outside her studio. She isn’t aware of any that have been painted over, though. People still contact her about the cats, and she says that people have returned over the years to see if she has painted more.
While she doesn’t have plans to paint any more cats on buildings, she regularly does commissioned pet portraits. She also offers discounted pet portraits painted on rocks during the Gila County Gem and Mineral Show in January. She can be contacted through the Cobre Valley Center for the Arts, where her work is also on display.
The best way to see Collins’ cats is by foot around historic Sullivan Street in downtown Miami.
Autumn Giles is a freelance writer and recipe developer whose work has appeared in Edible Baja Arizona, Modern Farmer, Punch, Serious Eats, and elsewhere. Her first book, Beyond Canning was published in February 2016.