About An American (Art Museum) Tail

Meet a boomerang cat whose backyard is one of the world’s most impressive collections of American art.

I LOVE art. And I love cats. However, I cannot claim to be an authority on either. Love doesn’t always equate to understanding, after all. Thus it seems reasonable to suggest that art and felines have this in common: Both can only be truly appreciated through subjective interpretation.

This background informs my recent pilgrimage and twofold quest to what must fairly be called a true mecca of American art. I mean, of course, the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Bentonville, an Arkansas treasure I’d yet to visit despite its six years of exhibitions.

Here I would find myself, like others, both startled and captivated by Duane Hanson’s Man on a Bench, a mixed-media piece depicting exactly what the title says, but with such realism and strategic placement as to take any visitor rounding the gallery corner unawares. I would later be likewise transfixed by the details of Max Ferguson’s Time, an oil painting of technique so precise its brushstrokes were entirely indiscernible to my admittedly amateur eyes.

But as I braved the cold to wander the museum’s grounds, those eyes were peeled for a real piece of work that was not art. I was hoping to catch another glimpse of Hamish (pronounced Hay-mish), the museum’s resident cat.

“Resident,” here, is a term used almost in the academic sense. On any given day, and especially on warm, sunny ones, Hamish can be found stalking the museum’s grounds, either deigning to let visitors fawn over him or appearing entirely aloof to their presence, stretched across a walking trail and, frankly, in no mood to move just because someone is approaching, even if they’re on a bike. A true visiting professor, this one.

But today wasn’t a warm, sunny one, and our professor was nowhere in sight. Frankly, that wasn’t a huge surprise to me, given that I’d just met Hamish at his real home with owners Michael and Cara Upton, who have deep ties to the community and live near the museum with Hamish’s big (human) sister Amelia and little (cat) brother Nigel Basillington.

I found Hamish, the supposedly sociable art lover, sleeping on Amelia’s bed instead of obstructing a museum trail or entwined around the base of Alexander Calder’s Trois noirs sur un rouge mobile. Though it felt slightly anticlimactic for a 3 1/2-hour journey to end in a toddler’s bedroom observing a sleeping cat, in a way it seemed appropriate. After all, Amelia’s desire for a pet is where all this started.

IN FEBRUARY 2016, then-2-year-old Amelia wanted a cat. One was found via Petfinder at the Springdale Animal Shelter. But that cat proved immediately unreceptive to sharing a home with a toddler. So, Cara says, they asked to meet others. Among those many felines awaiting forever homes, they found Hamish.

“It was just this instant connection,” Cara says. “The first thing that struck me was his coloring. We’ve always had orange tabby cats. He looked almost like a little lion with a mane, so I said, OK, we’ll see how you do, and he does great.”

It wasn’t long before the Uptons discovered that their new cat, fixed and microchipped on adoption, was unconventional. The family, being fond of evening walks along the museum trails a literal stone’s throw from their backyard, noticed Hamish would tag along. He loved the outdoors, and with easy, all-hours access via cat door, he presumably started exploring on his own—though often shucking his breakaway collar in the process.

“He had lost like five or six collars—I was afraid to get him a nonbreakaway collar because I didn’t want him to hang himself. Then one day [in August 2016],” Cara says, “he was just gone. We really think some nice person saw him and thought he was a stray and took him home.”

Though no one wanted to think it, there were other possibilities. Living on the edge of “the Walton Woods,” the family has seen opossums, armadillos, raccoons, even foxes. Hamish has his claws, but there was always the chance that the worst had happened.

Then in August 2017, almost a year to the day after Hamish vanished, Cara got a very unexpected call from a local vet.

“They said someone had turned in our cat,” she recalls, noting that the family had, by that point, fostered and ultimately adopted young Nigel. “I said, No, my cat’s right here. But they said, Well, the chip reads it’s yours. And I think, Oh my gosh, is that Hamish?

It was.

AFTER A YEAR’S absence, Hamish returned home. Though Cara says he “had a touch of feral” to him, with brittle fur and a leaner frame, it wasn’t long before he seemed to be the same old Hamish, even a bit more snuggly than before he’d disappeared.

That is, snuggly when he was home. Old habits being what they are, his propensity to venture outdoors was unabated, despite his long absence.

“We got a lot of flak for [still] allowing the indoor-outdoor thing,” Cara says. “But I figure, physical health and mental health are [both] important. I’d rather he be happy while he’s alive, even if it may be shorter than it would have been.”

I saw this much firsthand. Though content to laze on the couch during the better part of my visit to the Uptons, after about an hour—and despite those subfreezing temperatures outside—Hamish would no longer be contained. While I’d like to think he was telling me where I might later find him at the museum, his low-pitched yowling (apparently his normal speaking voice) seemed more directed at his cat door, which was locked. As soon as it wasn’t, he was out. He’ll come back, the family said.

What about that time he didn’t, though? Well, the Uptons now force their unrepentant wanderer to wear a nonbreakaway collar. In the interest of using what was at hand when Hamish had first returned, they originally grabbed a collar formerly used by their then-recently deceased chihuahua named Truffles, leaving the tag. Other than the name, the information on it was correct.

It wasn’t long before Michael started getting calls on his cellphone from staff members at Crystal Bridges. They reported finding the Uptons’ “lost” cat “Truffles.” Several times.

“With my phone number being on the tag, anybody who stops to pet him is able to see it and call me,” says Michael.

“Anybody” meaning not just museum staff, but even guests and random passers-by. They all started calling—so frequently, in fact, that Michael changed his voicemail to assuage them: No, Truffles, whose name is actually Hamish, is not lost. He lives nearby and will come home. Thank you for your concern.

The concern came from numbers originating from all over: the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, New Jersey, Los Angeles, Seattle and pretty much everywhere in Arkansas.

“If I look at calls on my cellphone bill, I can tell you which ones are Hamish,” Michael says, laughing.

With the frequency of calls, sometimes several in a single evening, the family knew Hamish was spending a lot of time at the museum. Then in September, they learned that his visits were so frequent that he’d been featured on the museum’s blog—and misidentified by the old tag.

“Meet Truffles,” the blog post reads. “Truffles has been hanging around the Frank Lloyd Wright house at Crystal Bridges for some time now. He greets visitors, lounges on the sidewalk, explores the garden beds … in short, he seems quite at home.”

Beth Bobbitt, public relations director for Crystal Bridges, elaborates further via email.

“I can tell you that the reason we started noticing Hamish was because he is so incredibly friendly and loving, and just wanted to be around people,” she writes. “We’d see him interacting with the visitors and hanging around the trail, especially the Frank Lloyd Wright house, where he has his own bed and, rumor has it, a stash of treats that our Guest Service team gives him.”

If it sounds like Hamish has the staff wrapped around his paw, it sounds right. To the surprise of the Uptons, he has made his way not only throughout the grounds surrounding the institution, but also inside it.

“Wait, our little boy is going inside the big important art museum?” Cara says, recalling her reaction upon hearing about the extent of Hamish’s adventures. “And the staff are OK with this? He doesn’t break any health codes? And they aren’t calling animal control? And they’re feeding him?”

His ubiquity is something of a running joke for staff.

“Occasionally, we’ll get an email that says something like, Watch out for Hamish if you leave for lunch. He’s been in the garage,” Bobbitt writes. “And he’s been known to make a few surprise appearances for meetings.”

Hamish also proved amenable to appearing in videos produced by the communications staff at the museum. For filming, Cara drove him over to the museum rather than let him roam on his own, which was the first time she saw in person how much total strangers loved her cat.

“What struck me with the staff, from the second I got there, was that I had no idea of their relationship with him, with months and months of him being there,” she says. “It was weird to wrap your head around that. They’re excited to see him and thanking me for letting them do this, and I’m just glad they’re not calling animal services or suing me because my cat pooped in their museum or something!”

But there was more to learn of their cat’s double life and the tricks he’d learned.

“It was then that they said he waits at the lower parking deck elevator most mornings when it’s warm. He waits at the elevator! He knows which floor to get off on. My cat rides the elevator!”

Michael adds, with some degree of pride, that Hamish has “made it into the library,” where, they’ve heard, “he is very polite,” preferring to nap for a bit and then move on. I once had a co-worker on a university campus who did the same thing each day at lunch. I see the appeal.

THE APPEAL, it would seem, is mutual. When the museum posted its holiday-themed video featuring Hamish to Facebook, it got 564 shares and 47,000 views by January. If you defy traditional advice to never read the comments, there you’ll find, rather than angry trolls, guest reports of happy interactions with Hamish, the occasional selfie and many people expressing a desire (like my own) to make meeting this cat part of their museum experience.

Similar sentiments pop up in the new Facebook group started by the Uptons: Hamish the Museum Advo(cat)e, where members have posted greetings from their own felines from just about everywhere.

What can you say? People love cats. In welcoming Hamish, Crystal Bridges shares something (aside from artwork) with the renowned Hermitage Museum of St. Petersburg, Russia. There, a handful of caring staff found a feral colony of cats, underfed and in poor health, collecting in the institution’s basement. They worked to create a warm, safe environment with veterinary care. Now 70-odd former strays live there and make sure no rats are nibbling on priceless pieces in storage.

But in Bentonville, as in Russia, the addition of a feline isn’t about aesthetic appreciation. It’s about esprit de corps. Let’s be honest—art museums can seem distant and intimidating. They can seem the epitome of stuffy. As collections grow in size and renown, so too does that feeling of inaccessibility, even when it’s free to get in. Museums can seem dispassionate and inexpressive, no matter how stunning and moving their collections might be as art—as works of human expression.

The embrace and even celebration of a wandering cat who shows up as a guest so frequently that he becomes the “unofficial official spokescat” is a beauty of a different kind. Rather than human expression, it’s the expression of humanity.

Spencer Watson is a writer living in Little Rock. Before leaving for Bentonville, he told his own attention-obsessed (but never starved) cat, Lucy, only that he had to work over the weekend. She still doesn’t know the truth of the matter, and he prefers it that way.