Seeing time in a cat’s eyes

Seeing time in a cat’s eyes

Dolan, Thomas G

“Every morning I wake up eager to go to work. I get lost in my creations and have to forc myself


ats are extremely difficult to make, and even in classical paintings, cats tend to look like dogs,” says Karen Lyons. “But cats are unique. You look into a cat’s eyes and you can see time. One thing I’ve always wanted to do is make a cat who looks like a cat.”

Karen has succeeded in her goal. But it hasn’t been easy. Nor did Karen think it would be.

In turning her artistic efforts to cats, Karen reversed the normal pat, tern for makers of collectibles. While a craftsperson usually struggles in her beginning years to evolve her own vision and technique, the work tends to become easier-and the rewards more tangible-once these are established. Karen, however, is going in the opposite direction; she faces daunting technical requirements for her exquisitely observed and strikingly lifelike cats. Each cat is a fresh creation.

“Everything about my approach is similar to classical sculpture-it’s just more difficult,” Karen says. But Karen is not troubled that many people see clay sculpture as art and soft sculpture as not. “There are so few good cat representations, and I definitely want to represent cats,” she says. “A lot of people like cats, and I get a thrill out of designing what no body has seen before and showing it to the world.”

Karen was born and raised in Connecticut. She grew up in a crealive environment: her father was an optical engineer, her mother was an artist, and her three brothers and sisters have all been involved in design. But perhaps even more important, as she recalls, “I lived outdoors; I was always into animals and nature.” In the second grade, even though it wasn’t a class assignment, she turned in to her teacher little cardboard models of ants and birds. “I was trying to make sculpture even before I knew what it was,” she says.

She found out soon enough. After graduating from C.W Post College with a degree in botany, she spent several years studying sculpture at the Pratt Center for Computer Graphics, the Sculpture Center in New York City, and the Washington Art Association. Her formal studies centered on the classical nude, but Karen was more interested in sculpting figures from the zoo or the natural history museum.

She got into the business in t 1976 by selling her teddy bears at local arts and crafts shows. In fact, her first business was called Teddy Bear Productions. In 1980 she was approached by Coleco, maker of the Cabbage Patch Dolls. Karen learned a couple of things about herself from that meeting. First, she did not want to be part of a large corporation. Second, she envisioned a future as a freelance toymaker, taking on difficult projects that others could not handle.

Karen’s breakthrough freelance job was designing toys for the Pee Wee Herman children’s show. After that, her many assignments included making Muppets for Henson Associates, working on environmental projects for Creative Services International, toy designs for Vic Rieling Associates, and movie projects/toy development for Breslin, Inc. However, Karen knew from the start that she wanted to open her own studio, which she did in 1989: KJ Lyons Design in Sharon, Connecticut. She still does a certain amount of freelance work for others, but now concentrates on her own work. In recent years, she has focused entirely on cats.

Karen has “sculpted just about every animal on earth,” but despite her extensive experience sculpting animal forms, she spent an entire year solving the many technical problems associated with making cats. She measured every inch of her own four cats, did countless sketches, made clay sculptures, and drafted patterns.

“The most important thing about a cat is its eyes, and there are no commercial ways to make standard eye sockets that can then be shaped the way you want,” Karen says. The problem in shaping cats’ eyes, she explains, no matter what the cat’s expression, is related to subtle indentations around the nose and cheek, which are impossible to standardize. After extensive experimentation, Karen realized she could softsculpt the head, stitching about 20 threads back and forth across the head to pull it into shape. She uses felt reinforcement for the cheeks and leather nose.

Karen experimented further to create the subtle iridescent colors she uses to capture the silver to gold, blue to green flicker of the cats’ eyes. She tried many things before she found a reinforced paper product to make the ears stand on end. Karen found that imported German plush is the only fur with the density and fine texture she needs for the defined sculptures she is making. Karen makes the cats’ foot pads from Ultrasuede and leather, and stuffs her felines with polyfill and pellets.

Karen works all day, up to seven days a week. “Every morning 1 wake up eager to go to work,” she says. “I get lost in my creations and have to force myself to leave the studio.” She says her moods go into the cats; the cat sculptures that reflect anger or a moody bad day will never come off the shelf. As Karen says, “Only the cats with that certain soul leave my studio.”Ts


KAREN LYONS (PAGE 30) Contact Karen at PO Box 1773, Sharon CT 06069, 860/364-5161; kj

Copyright Cowles Enthusiast Media Mar/Apr 2001

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