A Memorial to a Lonely Cat

Philip Koch, Under the Moon, oil on canvas, 24 x 36"

My bedroom faced the deep woods when I was a boy in Webster, NY, just outside of Rochester on the south shore of Lake Ontario. We'd get serious winter there every year and usually there was a deep snow blanket covering everything by mid-December. The snow would be illuminated by the moonlight, and as there were no other houses around it could seem as bright as a torch.

A very high pine tree rose on a ridge about a quarter mile off and at Christmas, some distant neighbors would string a handful of blue lights high up in the tree. They had an old string with only 5 working bulbs on it, but against the blackness, that seemed tremendously impressive . If I had to pick one memory of my childhood to stand for mysterious beauty, the sight of that lone set of lights in the winter night would nail it.

Years later I'd become a painter and lived in the (to me) deep South of Baltimore. But even here we get heavy snow sometimes. This old house was around the corner from where I lived. I'd pass it often. It was a survivor from an earlier time, now surrounded completely by a huge tract of modern suburban homes put up by a major corporate developer. Somehow the blandness of the new homes, aluminum siding and all, only heightened the soulfulness of this old house. As I painted the study for this picture (I did it in the afternoon) I realized no one seemed to ever come or go from this house. But I concluded it was inhabited after all, for each time I'd set up my easel, a cat would appear in the top window and watch me work.

Not long after I completed the oil study, the house burned completely to the ground. My first thought was to worry for the survival of that cat who'd been such a faithful observer of my working at the portable easel. It was a thought that would recur to me over time, more than I'd have liked. Maybe to tip my hat to that cat, I returned to the oil study and invented this nocturnal version. Of course the moonlight came from the woods out in back of my boyhood home along Lake Ontario. The cat, I know, is up hidden in the shadows in the topmost window, continuing her lonely vigil.


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