THE CAT ARTIST ~ The Story of Clare Turlay Newberry

THE CAT ARTIST ~ The Story of Clare Turlay Newberry, release date August 2015

Clare Turlay Newberry created scores of beloved children’s books, won four Caldecott awards, and was heralded by the New Yorker as “The best cat artist since the Egyptians.” But this is more than the biography of a talented artist and author. It is the tale of a fascinating, strong-minded woman, an early feminist with an exotic life and a coterie of famous friends.

Felicia N. Trujillo, Newberry’s daughter, has documented this uniquely American story with care and verve. It begins with Newberry’s peculiar pioneer family and childhood, then describes her Bohemian life with her first husband and son, her relationships with other creative women, and her personal evolution as an artist. Her creative successes and awards are well documented, as are all of her published books and portfolios.

Drawing on family history, lively interviews with Newberry’s family and friends, copious correspondence, and her mother’s own tales, Trujillo makes the story come alive. From the Northwest, it follows Clare to San Francisco, then to Paris, New York, and finally Taos, New Mexico, where she meets and marries Trujillo’s father. Cameos of the famous — John Steinbeck, H. L. Davis, Dorr Bothwell, Ursula Nordstrom, Taos doyen Mabel Dodge Lujan, feminist authors Adele and Cateau De Leeuw —are scattered throughout.


An excerpt from THE CAT ARTIST:


Clare’s story begins in the tiny town of Enterprise, Oregon April 10, 1903. Clare Wasson Turlay was born just twenty-five miles from the homestead log cabin in which her mother, Daisy Wasson, had spent her childhood. Clare often told me the story of how Daisy’s pioneer parents, Joseph Thompson Wasson and Jennie Blevans Wasson had settled on a long green ridge called the Cat’s Back, eighteen miles from the nearest cabin east of the town of Joseph, Oregon. A young homesteading couple very much in love, Daisy’s parents built a small cabin surrounded by an awesome amphitheater carved between the Seven Devils Mountains, the Eagle Mountains with their clear creeks and deep canyons.

Clare, however, was born in her Aunt Allie Hyatt’s hobbit-like miniature Victorian in Enterprise, which had been built for her by her husband, George Hyatt and has remained a town favorite. When I visited the Hyatt House (see first photograph below), I could barely fit my shoes on the tiny steps and wondered how Clare’s mother, Daisy, had managed to climb up the narrow staircase in to where Clare was born in the bedroom at the top. A single stained glass window lit the dark wooden stairs as I climbed back through time.

Once we were old enough to read, all the children in our family grew up reading Grandma Daisy’s manuscript Around the Cat’s Back for decades before the Oregon Historical Society published it in1989. Drawn from Daisy’s childhood diary, these touching stories about her pioneer family homesteading in northeast Oregon depict a love of the family animals that presaged Clare’s unusual empathy with cats and dogs.

Although Daisy’s pioneer family may have lacked drawing materials and had to create their own entertainment playing guitar and singing old family songs, they were never deprived of cats and a number of other animals that were considered family, including the pet hens, dogs and horses. This heartfelt appreciation of animals is shown in the fact that some of Clare’s very first drawings were of the Turlay family cats.

The family sense of whimsy was revealed in the novel names the Wassons invented for their pets. Their dogs had commoner names like Rover and Minnie and their horses were called Topsy, Coalie, Old Nell, Flax and Jude. More innovative names were awarded to Daisy’s beloved pet hen, Hecate, and a multitude of cats named Polly, Stranger, Leslie, Rindy, Randy, Shiny Top, Noah, Midget I and II, Smut, Dick Marmaduke, Play the Fiddle Play the Fiddle, Tom Tittlemouse, Croppie (whose ear tips had been cut off), Robert E. Lee and Tab Greengage Simply Him Play the Drum Play the Drum. (See photo of Clare’s mother, Daisy, and her sister, Carolyn, their laps full of their kittens and puppies for this rare photograph.)

Clare was named after her father, Chester Clare Turlay, who was half American Indian and half British. Despite prejudice against him for being a “half-breed,” Chester rode on horseback across Oregon and Washington states, putting up the first electrical wires and was a self-made millionaire by age 25. He courted and wed Daisy Wasson, “the prettiest girl” in Wallowa County, Oregon.

In 1921, at age eighteen, Clare attended a year at the University of Oregon, followed by another year at the School of the Portland Art Museum, and then traveled to the big city of San Francisco to attend the California School of Fine Arts, later known as the San Francisco Art Institute. Then at age 26, Clare went to Paris, France and began her studies at La Grand Chaumier with the intention of becoming a children’s portrait painter, but it was there that she began work on the illustrations for what would become her first best seller, HERBERT THE LION.