Black cats get a bad rap. Despite the fact that the Cat Fanciers’ Association recognizes 22 distinct cat breeds that carry a solidly inky coat, the black cat is more often viewed as a single species shrouded in superstition and bad luck. From Gobbolino to Thackery Binx, black cats can't seem to shake that spooky factor.
Enter Amy Goldwasser and Peter Arkle, a couple of creative people (who happen to be married to each other) behind the tongue-in-cheek book All Black Cats Are Not Alike. A distinctly non-spooky -- and, for that matter, non-cutesy -- take on the surprisingly diverse world of black cats.
Goldwasser and Arkle, who operate together under the name Studio Goldsparkle (a near-portmanteau of their names), started the project on Kickstarter. There, they outlined their story -- yes, they are cat owners, who habitually send out New Year's cards featuring their cats. One year, they recount, they included an illustration of their black cat Mimi, and recipients had one common response: "Hey, that's my black cat!"
"We started getting responses, including, most entertaining, from those with all-black cats in their homes and their holidays ... accusing us of putting their all-black cats in our specs on our card!" they wrote on the Kickstarter campaign. Goldwasser countered the claims with a sketch aimed at pointing out the differences in black cats, using his own as examples. "Seeing them gato-a-gato, friends noted that Coco looks like a Parisian librarian, while round-faced gallerina Mimi will steal your SoulCycle and only pretends to like books."
The black cat debacle of 2015 ended up stoking the fire that would become All Black Cats, consisting of 50 hand-drawn images accompanied by hand-lettered biographies that celebrate "the wild range of personality, originality, charisma and character" of ebony kitties. Based on a selection of cat stories sourced from Kickstarter funders, the book not only spotlights the real, sometimes darkly hilarious quirks that set black cats apart, but also the real, sometimes darkly hilarious people who love and mythologize their feline friends.
I had the chance to speak with the Goldsparkles just as All Black Cats is close to selling out its limited, 1,000-copy run.
On a scale of 1 to Jesse Eisenberg, how big of cat fans are you both?
Amy: I love cats -- I pretty much love all animals -- but in the case of this book, I’m just as much in it for the humans. The cats are incredible characters, each one a delightful weirdo in a little black fur coat. But it’s the humans who get to tell their stories, with whatever issues, dramas, eccentricities they chose to include or omit.
We set out to make a cat book that was never cutesy in that cat book way, but more about people -- and who they choose to share their homes and lives with every day. Some of our favorite responses have been from people who tell us they don’t like cats but they like the book.
Peter: I am in a constant love-hate relationship with cats. Any I have met annoy me as much as they charm me. But at least they don’t bore me. It’s funny how quickly something annoying done by a cat can turn into a funny story. I think lots of people feel this way about cats.
Do your cats run the house, or are they mere renters?
Peter: Our cats are definitely NOT renters… well, at least they don’t pay anything. Also judging by their lack of respect for our home, as shown by their love of scratching chunks out of our doors. They could be worse: For some reason they have not figured out how to wake us up in the morning. They just stare at us. I know plenty of other cats that would not be patient like that. But who knows how they view the situation. For all we know, they could think that we feed them in return for the precious gifts of poop they create for us each day.
Amy: They do both think they run the house though. Mimi always has to be higher than anyone else -- literally, physically, she’s usually up in this teenage emo loft space in our home. Often cutting/self-mutilating (she licks her own fur off). May is a fearless bully; she’s all of seven pounds but will take swings not just at Mimi, as well as at Peter and me. For obvious reasons, neither is allowed in Studio Goldsparkle. Though recipients of our books still say they’ve found pieces of fur, black and otherwise, in the packing tape and such.
I love that you allowed your Kickstarter funders to lead the Black Cat Casting Call. Did it end up this way in the book?
Amy: Every cat in the book came out of the Kickstarter campaign, from our backers -- that’s 48 of them, minus our two, Mimi and the late Sonny Goldsparkle. There were different tiers, options for them within. People could either outright pay to guarantee a place for their cat, or they could sponsor someone else’s cat (including cats who were up for adoption at Meow Parlour/KittyKind), or they could nominate their ABC for inclusion.
Ultimately 31 places in the book were paid for or sponsored, and then the All Black Cats casting call really began. Competition was fierce. We had hundreds of cats campaigning for those remaining 19 spots.
Then we had to make what were truly some of the most difficult professional decisions of our lives. They haunted us. We’d go home on Sunday night and see their faces in "Game of Thrones" characters. Every cat we got to meet was unique, adorable, charming, winning in his/her own way. That was the whole point of the book. At the same time, we had to cull. It would turn into this game of if you have one giant, round fluffball representing, then the next should be a small, sleek pointy cat and so on.
Peter: Looking weird or extra cute or different and having a human around who could take a clear photo helped the chosen few get their places.
Did the cat biographies you encountered strengthen your belief in the diversity of black cats?
Peter: We certainly did learn that our original thesis -- that all black cats are not alike -- was correct. But we also realized that the book was also very much about people and the kind of things they think about their cats.
Amy: The bios were particularly fun because they got past the appearance or mistaken identity or not showing up in selfies part -- the clichés about the way black cats look or their mythology. Where the basic physical features of any cat are only going to vary so much, the room for every kind of personality is infinite.
Plus, we like to think of the bios as nonfiction, memoir in a sense -- as much as they can be when the memoir subject is unable to speak. But these are real cats and their real stories, as true as their people told them.
What kinds of techniques or strategies do you use to differentiate your cat portraits?
Peter: Photoshop was a very useful tool for enlarging and clarifying many small fuzzy photos. Black cats are famous for being hard to photograph, and some times we had only the blurriest of jpegs to work from. The first task was to get a basic shape down and then to find any unique details or hints of other colors. Yes, all black cats are all black, but that means some are blue-black or green-black or orange- or red-black. And some have the odd white whisker. Eye colors were fun, as lots of cats have eyes that appear as different colors depending on what light they’re photographed in. One cat in the book even has the David Bowie-style two different eye colors.
Have you learned to hone in on precise features and traits?
Peter: Getting the details in the eye is most important. The highlights in the eyes give the cat life. Get these right and you capture the cat (or any other animal’s) soul.
How exactly did the biographies take shape?
Amy: They all came out of a standard questionnaire I sent out to the people behind the cats. My questions were aimed at generating the my-cat-and-only-my-cat-does-this singular qualities. Again, we’re both allergic to “cat person” cutesie. We didn’t want any typical, My baby curls up with me every night and purrs. We wanted their OCD habits, essentially their personality disorders. The kinds of things we’d all be embarrassed to admit were we talking about people—what you do when you’re home and nobody is watching, reporting. At least you think they’re not.
Peter: People, including us, LOVE to talk about their cats.
What was it like collaborating on a book like this as a married couple? Did Peter, in fact, go all Miranda Priestly? Would you do it again?
Amy: Only Mimi went all Miranda Priestly. Peter was great. I think there were days that we both got maxed out on looking at All Black Cat faces, getting All Black Cat photos in our emails, hearing All Black Cats stories and so on -- to the point where looking at Mimi could feel like work. Fortunately we are not married to her, and fortunately we were not doing a book about 50 Scottish illustrators or anything.
We are definitely planning to collaborate again, cat realm or elsewhere.
Peter: Let’s just say that the project would have gotten nowhere without Amy’s crazy multitasking skills. Drawing 50 cats is easy compared to wrangling hundreds of cat owners via email and running a Kickstarter campaign and then keeping track of hundreds more cat owners and PayPal orders and tracking shipments (warning to anyone thinking about doing this: it’s really hard work). She’s probably worked on this to some degree nearly every day for nearly a year now.
What's next for the All Black Cats project. Do you plan to extend it? Illustrate more cats?
Peter: First we still have a lot of visits to the local post office to get through. It’s been nice getting to know the people who work there so well. One of them, Daisy, even hugged us when she met us in the street one day.
Amy: Yeah, for now we fill in customs forms and make post office runs. We’re usually covered in Sharpie marks (also all black!). We intentionally made this a very limited print run, only 1,000 copies in the world, and we’re close to sold-out already, which is incredibly exciting. They’ll be collector’s items any moment now. As soon as our lives are less postally driven, we’ll figure out what’s next in keeping All Black Cats alive.
See a sample of the biographies that accompany the All Black Cats illustrations below. For more on the book, check out the website here.
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