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The City Journals

Masterpieces of purrfection

May 15, 2018 12:59PM ● By City Journals Staff

Artist Shu Yamamoto holds Molly. (Linnea Lundgren/City Journals)

By Linnea Lundgren | [email protected]

Molly and Neko aren’t interested. In fact, the two felines can’t even be bothered to look at the unique cat paintings that surround them. They’d rather bask in the sun than admire “Mona Cat” by Meownardo da Vinci or “The Kitty with a Pearl Earring” by Johannes Vermeow. 

That’s all right with their human, Shu Yamamoto, the artist behind the hundreds of classical masterpieces transformed into cat art at his Sandy home.

“They provide moral support just being here,” he said of the sun-bathing twosome.

That support has come in handy. Yamamoto has completed more than 500 pieces converting the great masters’ works into great cat works and then including a cat-chy twist to the painting’s name and artist. Every room in his home is like an art gallery. 

Molly poses in front of Shu Yamamoto’s cat art. (Linnea Lundgren/City Journals)

 A professional illustrator and graphic designer, Yamamoto found himself a retired empty-nester about 11 years ago. He recalled cleaning the house and discovering one of his son’s childhood art pieces — a Van Gogh self-portrait on which his son had placed a cat’s face in instead. “It was hilarious,” he said. “It worked perfect. I wondered if that could be applied to other paintings. So, I experimented with pencil and, lo and behold, it works, most of the time.”

Since then Yamamoto has painted every day, sometimes while still in his pajamas, and usually with Molly or Neko asleep nearby. “They never pose,” he added. 

His wife of 45 years, Reiko, whom he met while studying graphic design at Aichi Prefectural University of Fine Arts in Japan, doesn’t complain much about his art, but sometimes can’t resist a witty remark. “I told her one day my work will be famous here. And she said, ‘Yes, after you’re dead.’” 

Cats are an easy subject for Yamamoto to paint. Since he was a child he’s adored their “love me or leave me alone” attitude. Plus, he continued, cats have a natural elegance, a nobility that works well in classical art.


“Suppose a dog was in the ‘Mona Lisa,’ its tongue hanging from its mouth. Not nice,” he said.
“But if you change the human [subject in the art] into a cat, it’s always an improvement.”  For the record, Yamamoto does like dogs, often babysitting his son’s pooch, and includes dogs in his work, but usually in a subservient or background role — like the dog server in Edward Hopper’s “Nighthawks” catering to the cat patrons.

Yamamoto works on large canvas using acrylics, which he says can imitate everything that oils can do, don’t smell, and dry faster, so he can paint more paintings. That’s important, since the more he strives to replicate the masters’ works, the more he learns about their techniques, their brush strokes and their manipulation of light and color.

As for being unique, there’s only one other person he knows that does this extensive amount of cat art, but she lives in the UK, paints in watercolor and her cats wear dour expressions. It’s important to him that his feline works are whimsical and fun. 

That whimsy was noticed by a Japanese publisher, who published Yamamoto’s extensive book “Cat Art” after the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The nation was in a somber mood and the publisher thought fun cat art was just what the country needed. “Cat Art” is now in its fifth printing in Japan, which Yamamoto said is a “great surprise” for him and his publisher. He’s also published three other cat art books, including “Vermeow,” a collection of 37 of Vermeer’s best-known paintings-turned-cat art, as well as a book of Japanese woodblock prints featuring kitty-cats. 

 Yamamoto eagerly discussed his upcoming artistic tour de force — a replica of the Sistine Chapel ceiling with cats. Unlike Michelangelo, he doesn’t want to paint upside down, so he’ll divide the work into 100 canvas sections and then, when finished, he’ll digitally compile them to recreate the ceiling.

“Michelangelo spent four years on that,” he said. “I project six months.”

Follow Yamamoto’s work on Instagram @finefelineart.