Benny the Cat is larger than life. This fat, happy feline has been to the moon and back, and he can bake chocolate chip cookies and bowl. He also hikes and sings, and he’s read most of the classics — including, of course, The Cat in the Hat and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.
Benny’s adventures have been equally exciting for Julie Tenenbaum, artist and creator of CatStitch Studio, who first embroidered Benny’s round, grinning mug after seeing a similar face on a piece of pottery at Urban Mining Homewares in Kansas City, Missouri. Not knowing how important the image would become to her, she did not buy the pot the first time she saw it.
“I thought that a real artist would just sketch that face and keep it for inspiration,” she says. “So I did that on a tiny piece of scratch paper. It was months before I pulled it out and decided to embroider it. When I realized how intertwined Benny and I would become, I really wanted that pot.”
It took Tenenbaum another year to track it down — and when she did, she purchased it for $2.
Since then, she has embroidered many “Bennies,” as she calls them, using her own life as inspiration. For example, Tenenbaum taught yoga for 12 years, so her new series has Benny doing yoga poses, such as downward-facing dog and mountain pose. “Benny in Bed” depicts Tenenbaum’s bedroom, where she loves to read, eat, and lounge with her cats.
And “Baker Benny” honors her husband, a baker, who “makes chocolate chip cookies to my very exacting standards — crispy, not chewy,” she says.
Listening to Tenenbaum talk about Benny, it is obvious that she is doing what she loves. So it is somewhat surprising that she has never considered herself an artist. A self-described “late bloomer,” she has owned and operated her own secretarial service for more than 25 years — a profession that requires much attention to detail, as she types, edits, formats, and proofreads materials for her customers. Tenenbaum did not discover her creative side until she was in her 50s — and, she says, when she did it was a fluke. She fashioned yarn-covered embroidery hoops to hold her earrings, and that’s when she discovered that she loved playing with fabric and color.
“I’ve always kind of followed my nose,” Tenenbaum says. “I’ve never considered myself any kind of an artist, but I’ve always enjoyed painting — walls, that is, not pictures — and I’ve always enjoyed sewing. I really don’t know what got me going. I just followed my nose right into it — one thing just led to another.”
In addition to art, her other great love is cats. She has two kitties, Sunny, “the young rascal,” and Sammie, who inspires Benny’s personality.
“He’s fat, and he’s happy — just like Benny,” Tenenbaum says. “He does so many silly, wonderful things.”
She adopted Sunny as a kitten from Karma’s Rescue in Kansas City after her beloved cat, Sara, passed away. As the story tends to go, Sunny chose Tenenbaum when she curled up purring in her lap at their first meeting.
Like many cat lovers, she is endlessly fascinated by her kitties, so the feline form almost immediately found its way into her artwork.
“I can’t imagine drawing anything else,” she says. “They are beautiful, graceful, flexible, and stubborn. I love the hard-headedness of my cats — they’re just going to do what they’re going to do. There’s nothing more interesting to me than a cat.”
Tenenbaum shares her love of cats and embroidery through Benny. She has exhibited at numerous coffee shops, churches, libraries, and restaurants in the Kansas City area; visit her website and follow Benny Cat at CatStitch Studio on Facebook for updates, new work, and upcoming shows. Much like becoming an artist, she had never planned to exhibit her work. She started doing so only at the insistence of her late friend, Sherry, a fellow secretary and artist who was one of her earliest supporters.
“I used to go over to her house and show her what I was working on because she was so appreciative and she was so creative herself,” Tenenbaum says. “She would say, ‘Missy, you need to start showing these things.'”
Now that the accidental artist has more than a year of exhibiting under her belt, she hopes to take Benny to the next level. She is currently looking for a licensing representative, and ultimately she’d like to see Benny on T-shirts, pillowcases, and other home accessories.
“I want people to be happy when they see him,” she says. “And if people are tuned into cats at all, they just look at him and smile. And that’s what I’m going for. It doesn’t even have to go any further than that. I just want Benny to make people happy.”
Wherever her journey takes her next, one thing is certain: She will continue to follow her nose.
“We’ll see where it goes next,” she says. “I will never ever have a five-year plan.”
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