February 2013

Pete the Cat

Author: Paul Devere | Photographer: James Dean

Artist James Dean has a thing about cats. Well, one cat in particular. His name is Pete. Pete is a blue (the real Pete was black), groovy, VW bus-driving, coffee-drinking, Beatles-loving, cool character. And it was this cat that changed Dean’s life in ways he never imagined. With a degree in engineering from Auburn, Dean went to work for Georgia Power for almost 20 years. But this self-taught artist also spent his spare time painting landscapes and cityscapes around Auburn and Atlanta. His work sold and, at 39, he decided to devote his life (and his ability to make a living) to art… and Pete.

Now Dean and Pete are in the thick of children’s books, starting with Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes, a bestseller for his publisher Harper Collins. There are four more Pete books with another under contract. With over 225,000 followers on Pinterest, books in every place from Barnes & Noble to Wal-Mart, and a Pete the Cat doll, among many other Pete the Cat items, plus his “adult” paintings of Pete in close to 100 galleries throughout the U.S., Dean is pretty sure he made the right decision about Pete.

CH2 had a chance to talk with the artist about his success and his cobalt blue cat, Pete.

CH2: Looks like Pete may be taking up where Dr. Seuss left off. Where did Pete come from?

James Dean: Pete the Cat started out as an adult character in my paintings. Children’s books were sort of an afterthought. In 1999, I drew the first picture of Pete the Cat. In the very first picture, he was sitting still, and he looked like he was thinking. I went to get my camera, but he was gone by the time I got back. I usually drew from a photograph. Pete forced me out of my box. That first painting is not cartoonish at all. He’s melancholy. He’s just blue with white space around him. The first paintings were all like that. Pete was a real cat, a black cat. It was always him, sitting on the furniture, doing cat things.

CH2: How long did it take you to go from that first painting to developing Pete?

JD: My education is in electrical engineering. I’m not a writer. I don’t consider myself a words person. But I kept thinking about it. I went along for seven years with that thought in my head—a children’s book. There was one funny thing; I guess I’ve never told anybody about this. I read about Dr. Seuss [Dean’s hero], and when he started out, they gave him a list of words to use. They were words that were for beginning readers—little children. He was supposed to use these words in his books. I kind of got it in my head that there was a list of words out there that I was supposed to use, and I had no idea what those words were. I’ve been in the children’s book world for a while and still nobody’s given me that list.

CH2: How was Pete introduced to the public?

JD: A bunch of people approached me about doing a book, but then one day (2006) I was driving into Atlanta. I have an old ’65 Chevrolet with a cat on the side of the door. This guy was standing on a street corner. I stopped at a traffic light and he waved me over and said, “I’ve just recorded a song for you.” I looked at him and I literally thought he was a homeless person. That was Eric Litwin. (Litwin is author of four Pete the Cat books.) He was out doing gigs at schools, singing for children and telling stories. We were both getting by. He’d written a story called “I love My White Shoes” about a little girl. But one day he put Pete the Cat in the story instead of the little girl, and he said he got this totally different reaction. I guess what happened is, when he put Pete in the song, it made it funkier, like this groovy cat.

CH2: What happened next?

JD: We self-published. Eric was selling the books in school and I was selling them out of my tent at the festivals. We sold 7,000 books in less than a year. Then we had another crazy coincidence. Karen Wilson, whose family owned a bookstore in Fairhope, Alabama, near Mobile, came to Atlanta. I had drawn a poster for a race to raise funds for a school in Decatur. She saw the poster, which had Pete in running shoes. She took a picture of the poster and showed it around Fairhope; she wanted an artist to do something like it for a race in Fairhope. Someone she showed it to knew about my art and said she should “get in touch with James. He does all kinds of stuff for free.” Which I did.

Karen called me, and when I went down there and showed her my book, she said, “I love this book. Do you mind if I show it to some publishers in New York? She sent it through her book representative to Harper Collins. They offered us a contract immediately for two books. That’s how it started.

CH2: Other than children’s books, Pete also appears in what you’ve called the Master’s Series, among other paintings of the “adult Pete.” How did that come about?

JD: In 2001, I got this idea to do Pete in a Master’s painting. I think the first one was Degas’ Sunflowers. And before I got halfway through that sketch, I had an idea for the next one. People really like Michelangelo’s ?/Creation of Adam??, where God is reaching out his hand. Pete is doing what cats do—he’s reaching out his paw.

I used to worry that I would be bored out of my mind painting the same thing day after day for 14 years. But I just keep having fun with it.

CH2: Your books seem to tell children that Pete is there to help them. Where does that come from?

JD: I don’t know. I’ve been out on a book tour by myself. I realized all I have to do is go in there and love them. I wear a Dr. Seuss hat, the big red and white one from Cat in the Hat. As soon as I walk in the door, they know that I’m there for them. I just go in there and act silly. Maybe it works because there’s a part of me that’s still child-like. I think being an artist allows you to hold on to that. Sometimes you see adults, and it feels like they don’t have any “child” left in them. It’s like they left that behind somewhere.

CH2: What is Pete’s next big move, or leap?

JD: Pete gets grumpy. It’s really a story about how he gets to be so happy.

CH2: Any advice to budding authors?

JD: I would never paint something I didn’t feel good about. I’m a cat person. I am passionate about cats. My advice: don’t paint something just because you think people will buy it. That’s not going to work.


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