The Vineyard has a long history of being dog-centric. There are dogs on boats, dogs on beaches, dogs at offices. At the top of Circuit avenue there’s a shop dedicated to all things dog. And, of course, there’s the Island’s most well-known canine — the Black Dog.
But living a more low-key life are the Island’s cats. They’re lounging on porches, resting under shady trees, hunting in barns, sleeping in laundry baskets — even exploring the beaches. And in her new book Cats of Martha’s Vineyard, contemporary artist and photographer Lynn Christoffers gives Island cats their due.
The book features 101 Island cats captured in Ms. Christoffers photographs and, in many cases, in stories told by their owners.
The inception of the book dates back to January 2007 when Ms. Christoffers started taking photographs of Cynthia Riggs’s cat, Britty. Ms. Riggs suggested she take photographs of Richard Knabel’s Maine coon cats. Then she photographed Phyllis Meras’s cats.
“One thing led to another and Cynthia was so enthusiastic. She said ‘it’s time for you do to a book about cats of Martha’s Vineyard,’” Ms. Christoffers recalled. “One of my big intentions was to have a diverse selection of cats — and people. So I kept going.”
Though Ms. Christoffers posted a sign at Michelle Jasny’s veterinary office looking for interested cat owners, the felines in the book mostly came to her by word of mouth.
“Wherever I am, whatever neighborhood, I can think of a cat to visit,” she said, laughing.
From the start, Ms. Christoffers made sure to take notes about each cat, “the vitals,” as she called them. Name, breed, age, unique attributes, etc. She initially planned to write something about each cat herself, but as the numbers rose she decided to have the owners tell the story instead.
“A lot of people want to tell you where they got their cat from, this special story,” she said. “Like the Ellises — they found a $50 bill in the parking lot and instead of going out to lunch, Teddy said, ‘Let’s go to the animal shelter, let’s get a cat.’”
And for Ms. Christoffers, the stories, many of which are very personal, were a special entry into each family — something that she takes very seriously.
“I’ll go into Cronig’s or Stop & Shop and I’ll see one of my cat people and right away we have a language. We have a connection. It’s like a connection that has no artifice. We get right to the heart of the matter. It’s like a shared love.”
Once she started compiling the photographs and stories, Ms. Christoffers began to see some themes emerging that naturally organized the book into chapters including Beginnings, Naming Cats, Cats with Special Talents, Companions and Survivors, to name a few.
There is also a chapter entitled In Memory for cats that have died during the course of the project.
“It gives me joy to see all four of my original Maine coons captured for posterity in ways that really show their personalities so well,” said Mr. Knabel. “Unfortunately, two (Brunhilda and Tofu) are gone, but Lynn gave us portraits of both that we cherish.”
Published by Vineyard Stories, the book was designed with the help of Janet Holladay at the Tisbury Printer and graphic designer Jane McTeigue. The book is now available in local bookstores.
“I had many different connections in getting this done. I have to thank many people,” she said. “And the cats, the cats are the stars of this book. I did not have a no-show in any of the shoots.”
As for the star on the cover of the book, he came from a chance encounter at a Chilmark bank parking lot.
“I particularly like that shot because it was just me and the cat,” recalled Ms. Christoffers. “We had a little session together. I was probably there a half an hour, but did he show off for me! I took my pictures, we schmoozed. We had some time just to ourselves.”
She later found out that his name was Milky Way. He and his sister Snickers belong to Betsy Shay.
And as much as the book is about cats, it’s also what she calls a “cats-eye view” of the Island’s residents.
Sue Hruby, who appears with her cats Athena and Rosie, agrees. “There is a wonderful humanity seeing Vineyard cats with their people, to see so many photos of cats with their human families and the esteem and affection they are given.”
“I like the fluidity of it all,” Ms. Christoffers said. “It puts us all on the same page.”
For now Ms. Christoffers is working on contacting the cat owners to let them know the book is available, working from her home in West Tisbury with her Siamese cat, Diana, by her side.
As word spreads about the book, she is hearing about even more Island cats. “I’m ready for book two!” she said. “I have so many people now that I’m meeting with cats that could very well have been in here.”