Artist Spotlight: For Pete’s Sake

pete[s2If is_user_logged_in()]

PDF Click here to view this article as a PDF[/s2If]

Artist James Dean’s path to fame was guided by the ageless spirit of a very real feline, now the iconic symbol of tongue-in-cheek grooviness.

By LARUE HARDINGER

Fort Payne native James Dean shares more than just a name and good looks with the 1950s silver-screen heartthrob. Both are celebrities of the coolest sort.

Dean is the creator of Pete the Cat – a golden-eyed, blue feline known the world over as the ‘groovy’ cat with hooded gaze and plenty of attitude. “I’m stuck in the ’70s,” admits Dean, flashing a grin. He looks the part – with sleek ponytail, trimmed beard and mustache, casual garb and wire-rimmed glasses – behind which are perpetually smiling eyes.

“People tell me Pete has my eyes,” he adds, as would any proud father.

Art is Dean’s passion, but drawing Pete the Cat was never a quest for stardom. Fame found Dean just as Dean found Pete – who most definitely was a real cat.

“That’s the question I am asked most often,” Dean relates. Dean visited a Madison, Ga., animal shelter in 1999. Normally he would’ve passed on a skinny black kitten, but Pete reached out a paw. “Pete chose me,” Dean smiles.[s2If !is_user_logged_in()]

To read the rest of this article, pick up a copy of the Spring 2016 issue OR Subscribe Now for instant access to our online edition, which offers more photos (including those not published in the print edition).

[/s2If][s2If is_user_logged_in()]Pete went missing only a year later, and it broke Dean’s heart. The kitten had purred under Dean’s resting hand as he painted each morning, and that companionship was magic.

Pete had become the subject of tongue-in-cheek illustrations, doing things Dean liked to do: Pete driving a yellow VW bus; Pete drinking coffee; Pete playing electric guitar; Pete riding a Harley. Weeks passed. Dean continued painting his little buddy with abandon – holding onto his Pete the only way he knew how.

“It was awful,” Dean says, watching the doorway for Pete to return, in vain. That was 17 years ago, and Pete the character has now traveled many a byway with Dean. “He’s always with me,” Dean says. “He’s amazing. He’s ageless. He can be anything, and he’s just as loved by adults as he is kids.”

In throwback slang, Pete urges kids to roll with the punches and “If you want to be cool, just be you!”

Pete the Cat may be the rockstar of kid’s literature, but he was first the subject of an adult album of cat paintings, “The Misadventures of Pete the Cat.” Dean self-published only 3,000 under his Indigo label in 2006, and they are now a coveted collectors’ item. Pete the Cat paintings sell for thousands of dollars and appear in more than 90 art galleries around the world – from Savannah to New Orleans to Portsmouth to Tokyo.

Channeling a mix of whimsy and pop culture, Pete can be found in the arms of Mona Lisa or strolling across Abbey Road as the fifth Beatle. He can be on horseback alongside Don Quixote, going it alone with an exiled and half-deflated “Wilson” or portrayed in thought-bubble-speak, Dinero- style: “You lookin at me?”

But Pete’s cool persona is pure chameleon, for with the mere utterance of his catchphrase “It’s all good!” he jumps off the pages of New-York-Times-bestselling children’s picture books in his orange backpack, atop his yellow skateboard, sporting his magic blue shades and finding the silver lining of every mishap, every day.

Parents and kids are raving, and they haven’t been able to get enough since the 2010 release of “I Love My White Shoes!” – the first of four children’s storybook hits born of the partnership between Dean and Eric Litwin, who for four years wrote lyrics and tunes to match Dean’ watercolors of Pete.

“I Love My White Shoes!” is the “CliffsNotes” of Pete’s resume. He mucks up his sneakers by stepping in strawberries, blueberries and mud. Each time the story asks, “Did Pete cry? Goodness, No!” Instead, Pete proudly keeps stepping in his shoes of a new color. The ending reads, “No matter what you step in, keep walking along and singing your song … because it’s all good.” “White Shoes” was followed by “Rocking In My School Shoes,” “Four Groovy Buttons” and “Pete the Cat Saves Christmas.”

Pete took the world by perfect storm. The series of picture books and illustrated storybooks sold more than 3.5 million copies and spent more than 180 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. Dean and Litwin toured nationally, with Dean painting Pete as Litwin strummed guitar and sang lyrics. Their Pete books were translated into 14 languages and claimed the top three spots on The New York Times children’s bestseller list.

“I didn’t know such things were within the realm of possibility,” says Dean.

Litwin and Dean parted ways in 2012, and Dean renewed a promise he made to sculptor Kimberly Ricks when he married her in 2004: The two would co-write a children’s book.

“It’s a promise we made together,” Dean says with resolve. Their first attempt around the kitchen table failed. But “Pete the Cat and His Magic Sunglasses” finally bridged the void, and when Harper- Collins published it in 2013, Pete the Cat was ‘down with that’! The duo has created more Pete picture books, and Pete’s celebrity only grows.

The century-old Dean house is a free-style, Southern, in-home artistic utopia, with five cats and one pug underfoot. Mornings are reserved for painting. From the solace of therapy in those faithfully kept appointments arise countless new adventures for Pete and Dean. He marks each painting with TNTFT – a Biblical reminder to “Take no thought for tomorrow.” It’s his motto to savor the moment.

Dean is keeping another, older promise – a vow to himself when he was still James Dean Thomas, attending grade school, hearing the voice of a teacher who said of his Snoopy and Yogi Bear drawings: “You have talent!”

Dean was the oldest of three raised in public housing in Fort Payne, Ala., by a single parent. He watched his mother Jeanette go to work in the stifling sock mill to make ends meet.

“I had a great mom,” Dean remembers. “Her main job was to turn socks and sew ends. Thousands of them, so she could get us kids through school. We were probably among the poorest kids around. But we would play in the woods at the foot of Lookout Mountain, and I still have a lot of good friends from Fort Payne that I keep in touch with. It’s a wonderful town for kids to grow up in.”

As a child, Dean never knew his name was a nod to the movie star of ’50s fame. “Mom told me it was a family name,” Dean recalls. “But it was my father’s idea. He went to see some James Dean movie. Then he went and had my name changed on the birth certificate to James Dean Thomas.”

Decades later, Dean would drop his surname. He knew the JAMES DEAN signature on a painting would make gallery-goers look twice. And it worked. Dean’s father gave Kennedy names to Dean’s younger siblings – Jaqueline (Jackie), and John. Though he would abandon the family when Dean was 13, Curtis Thomas left a lasting impression.

“He was such a talented man,” Dean says, adding that Thomas was a self-taught artist.

Dean recalls his yearning to be the same. At age 15, he worked at Pasquales Pizza and later at J & J Bar B Que. The summer before college, Dean worked at Heil Corporation, and he worked three summers at Merico Bakery in Fort Payne during his college years at Auburn University.

Dean graduated from Auburn in 1982 and moved directly into electrical engineering with Georgia Power at Athens. His desire to pursue art only grew.

“I told myself, when I’m 35, I want to be doing something I am passionate about,” he says.

That pivotal moment came when he stopped in his tracks at an Athens Art Festival and did a 180-degree turn. His weekend watercolor landscapes had begun to sell. He legally shortened his name to James Dean and at age 39 walked away from Georgia Power. Dean leapt from an ordered, meticulous job into an imaginary world that would spill over onto white paper at first, then onto canvas and, at last, begin to stop others dead in their tracks.

“I will never forget the lady who kept staring at my first cat drawing, on nothing but a white background, which I had done for a shelter fundraiser,” Dean recalls. “She came back the next day and said she couldn’t get that painting off her mind.”

Dean knew he was onto something when she snatched up the simple illustration for $300. Everyday things and the stuff of dreams are all part of Pete’s journey, and the ride is taking Dean places he never imagined. April 2016 marks the grand opening of Blue Heaven, his family art gallery on Georgia’s Tybee Island.

“I never liked the cliché of being a cat artist,” he muses. But once Pete adopted Dean, life forever changed. “Pete just took over my painting.” Dean says the most popular of his Pete paintings is entitled, “You’re not the boss of me.” It’s a stare from Pete that only a cat-lover could understand.

Dean understands.

Pete the Cat books are available on Amazon.com, at Barnes and Noble book stores, and at The Book Shelf, Etc,. in James Dean’s hometown of Fort Payne, Ala. There are several Pete the Cat painting (all for sale) that grace the wall of The Spot Coffee Shop in Fort Payne. Fan mail can be addressed to; Pete the Cat, 2126 E. Victory Drive #112, Savannah, GA 31404.

[/s2If]