(From The Way-Back Files —Just Cats!, Winter 1998.)
Julie Tichota was one of those souls caught between worlds. The artist, who started Angels Afoot, a mail-order cat-art business in Joplin, Missouri, back in 1993, had an obvious spiritual bent. “Julie went to church, and she was very into angels, as you can see,” remarks Hazel Balfour, the minister’s wife and fellow Maine Coon cat breeder who took over the business with her friend, Joyce Major, after Tichota’s death from myelofibrosis in December 1997. “She had lots of angel babies [in her work]….She had been a hippie type back in the ‘70s – some of that still clung to her.”
Tichota’s winged felines aren't the cutesy little critters with wings and halos that you might expect. Based on her own Maine Coons, they are drawn in the same loving detail that you see in British artist Lesley Anne Ivory’s work. In fact, so realistic are they – right down to their sweetly soulful expressions and the lynx-like tufts of fur in their ears -- you almost forget about those wings.
The drawings, which grace T-shirts, nightshirts, stained-glass hangings and boxes, “reflected her personality, too,” Balfour insists. “That’s the type of personality she was – very tasteful.” But Tichota, despite her fascination with angels, wasn’t entirely otherworldly. She was a perfectionist, using only the highest-quality materials. Since the myelofibrosis had left her extremely sensitive to chemicals, she had to make sure that those materials were “as non-toxic as possible.” She was “very safety-conscious in that respect. When she had to use the darkroom [for printing], she had to wear a safety mask.”
Her love of cats was, in a sense, the bridge between the two worlds for Tichota. In her studio and darkroom – cat angels; in the day-to-day world – her beloved Maine Coons, which she began breeding around 1992, and the strays that she helped whenever possible. She gave both time and money to the Joplin Humane Society: she was so involved with the organization, Balfour remembers, they once called her in “to calm down an unmanageable cat. She showed up with some herbs to calm it down because she wanted it to be adopted. I know she was tickled when they told her it had been adopted.” And when she died, the Society turned up in full force at her memorial service.
Bucky, her first Maine Coon – or, at least, her first Maine Coon-type cat – came to her courtesy of them. Not only did he get her hooked on Maine Coons, but he became the poster kitty for Angels Afoot, appearing in the original version of “All God’s Angels Come to Us Disguised.” (Later, Tichota re-did the design, using two kittens from her first litter of Maine Coons.)
Bucky was soon joined by Phoebe, a purebred Maine Coon that the artist bought. Among Phoebe’s first kittens was Gracie, who was Tichota’s feline kindred spirit and who figures in a number of prints. (There is still one painting of Gracie that Angels Afoot has yet to release.) Gracie had one litter of her own, then died in 1996 following a routine spaying operation. Essentially, she “bled out.” For Tichota, it was like losing a child: “Julie spent the whole night making a casket for Gracie. She even got those beads with the letters on them and made a bracelet for Gracie’s paw. She had her cremated, and she kept the ashes. And when she died, she wanted her ashes and Gracie’s put together.”
But that wasn’t the end of it. Not for Tichota, who was “very headstrong when it came to her cats and her art.” She painted Gracie steadily for a year after her death. Balfour recalls the artist saying, “’It was fun – I got to look at her all day long – I got to look at her face.’ Artists are that way. I would’ve found it very upsetting, but it was her way of grieving.” “Heavenly Vigil” -- which turned out to be Tichota’s last work and the only one she ever did in full color – featured two of Gracie’s kittens, Tink and Wooley, “looking toward heaven to their mother.”
That strong mother-feeling she had for Gracie came into play with other cats, too. “As ill as she was,” Balfour says, “the cats were a part of her life – not just her cats but any cats.” Take Amigo, for instance. The elderly stray (“He was old,” the artist’s friend remarks. “I mean, that cat was ancient. He looked like he’d been through wars!”), who had tested positive for Feline Infectious Peritonitis (FIP), couldn’t be allowed to mingle with her other cats, of course; so Tichota “got a large dog house for him, put it in her front yard, put straw around it, and he pretty much stayed there” until he died. Then there was Biscuit-Head, another stray whom the partners are still looking after. “Any cat who knew the neighborhood knew it could get a meal there [from Julie],” Balfour laughs. “It helped if they were sick. She would see a cat by the road, and she’d pull over and try to catch it.”
The Balfours, who already run what Hazel calls “a hospice and placement service for Maine Coons,” have been taking care of Tichota’s cats since her death; whatever profits they’ve made from Angels Afoot have gone toward their upkeep and medical expenses, including spaying and neutering. It has been tricky finding the right homes for the cats because they’re not used to being handled. Tichota was too ill to pick them up, Balfour explains, “so she didn’t. Basically, her days consisted of her lying in bed with the cats all around her.” Still, they’ve managed to place all but the two most skittish ones.
Taking care of Tichota’s beloved pets – trying to keep Angels Afoot going and “to present Julie’s work in the same manner that she would have wanted” – all these things the women have undertaken out of their love for her and for all things feline. “We were in the cat realm,” Balfour says simply. “Some people are in the cat realm, and some people aren’t.”
*****Since I wrote this piece, Angels Afoot has expanded its line-up to include mouse pads, clocks, cutting boards, ceramic plates, jewelry, and mugs featuring Tichota’s work. They also do more personalized work. You can find them at http://www.angelsafootdesigns.com.
(Julie Tichota's "Phoebe.")