This is (not a) Lost Cat poster
A funny poster that's recently popped up in Cork and Fermoy is a lot more than it seems: the search for its owner leads to a creative and philosophical inquiry connecting Cork to the world.
From a distance, the A4 poster that appeared on a bus shelter on Patrick’s Street in Cork recently was a very ordinary thing.
We’ve all walked past lost pet posters hundreds of times in our lives: forlorn cries for the return of a probably squashed feline or canine, often with tattered penumbra of tear-off phone numbers along the bottom.
At a closer look, though, it was apparent that this lost cat poster was actually some sort of joke.
For starters, the cat was a painting. And it was kind of…cross-eyed. And the words said something other than what they seemed to say from a distance.
As unwelcome as an early Banksy, as unexpectedly small as Girl With a Pearl Earring, two identical copies of this funny little poster have appeared in County Cork in recent weeks: one on Patrick’s Street, and one in Fermoy.
But there are actually hundreds of them, in locations all over the world.
Within a month, the poster will make an appearance in Antarctica, the only continent it is yet to conquer.
The (not a) Lost Cat Project is a growing phenomenon that started in May, a citizen art project, part of what its creator terms a “gentle re-weirding” of the world.
“The first one went up in India yesterday and a guy sent me a message from Bangalore with a little video of the street it went up on, and it’s like, isn’t this amazing?” Steve Chapman’s excitement is palpable even via Zoom. “Just to see that – the temperature, the environment, the clothes, and there’s a lost cat poster there, and people are walking past and looking at it.”
Chapman is crammed into his closet-sized studio in his house in Surrey. He’s surrounded by pieces of his colourful artwork. Known online, most notably on Instagram where most of his fanbase is, as Stevexoh, Chapman is the man behind the (not a) Lost Cat project.
He’s also the creator of the world’s only silent podcast and creator of an online gallery for outsider artists, but we’ll get to those soon.
Impostor syndrome and the inner critic, or how school fucks you up
When Steve was in primary school, drawing and writing stories were what excited him most. But what happened next is a tale as old as the history of state education, and one that will be tragically familiar to many of us.
“I left secondary school thinking I’m neither intelligent nor creative, and I got a job in a factory,” he says. “I spent 20 years in that company, and left with a decent, senior job. I think it’s a typical working-class trap that you leave school and get a job, and it doesn’t matter if you like the job or not, if you can minimise how crap it is, that’s for the better.”
His innate people skills led to career progression, ending up managing “bits of factories, and then a number of factories. But I always felt like an impostor because I had no qualifications and I didn’t particularly like working for the company.”
I know this story too, don’t you?
Formal education’s insistence on dividing children’s curiosity into art versus science, and its frequently brutal cultivation of our inner critic, with creatively crippling consequences, is something Steve, now 48 and father to a 14-year-old, hopes has changed since his schooldays.
His own journey back into art, and his ability to shake off or at least quell the fear of failure, so fatal to creativity, that is rooted in the education system has taken decades.
“There’s an artist called Linda Barry who has a brilliant question in one of her books: she says, ‘how old do you have to be to do a bad drawing?’” he says.
“That really gets you to think, doesn’t it? What was the first bad drawing you did, and what was it that made it a bad drawing when the last one you did wasn’t?”
“They’re death by a thousand cuts, those little messages that we get. I remember doing GCSE art and for our mock exams we were given the theme of movement. The girl sitting next to me drew a picture of Matt Goss from Bros, which shows how old I am, and for movement, she just drew these little lines under his feet, which was quite funny.”
“The teacher came around and said, that’s a waste of charcoal and I thought, how can you say that? How can you get art wrong?”
“The attitude when I was in school was, well ok, we’ll let you do some of this stuff, but there’s still the important stuff to do. It’s focusing on that supposedly important work that’s got the world into the situation that it’s in now.”
“By focusing on the creative and the intangible and the experimental, that’s how change happens.”
Talking to Steve is frequently like this: a seemingly small observation blossoms into a broader philosophical inquiry, and bears fruit in the form of astute insight.
Later in his life, Steve discovered that he had dyslexia, as well as some traits associated with Autism Spectrum Disorder (ASD). These went unnoticed in school, and like so many, the young Steve internalised negative messages about himself instead of questioning the capacity of the system that was failing him.
Nowadays, he describes himself as “an artist, writer and thinker interested in creativity and the human condition.” He gives talks and lectures on fostering creativity, on contending with the “inner critic” with which he is all too familiar: his 2017 Ted Talk is titled This Talk Isn’t Very Good.
But it’s been a journey of many years to get from factory management to where he is today.
Having been offered some workplace training with Applied Behavioural Science organisation the NTL institute, Steve applied for an MA programme: a Masters in Culture at Ashridge Business School. “I got in because I knew someone, and I didn’t want to do it, but they encouraged me, and again I felt like an impostor,” he says. “I felt sick when I was there, because I was wandering around this horribly academic place thinking, what am I doing here?”
Third level was kinder to Steve than second level had been: he got “incredible marks” and wrote his dissertation on spontaneity and the present moment.
“Then I left the company and sort of went out on my own,” he says. “I started writing about creativity and doing workshops, and it’s only probably about five or six years ago that I started making art again, doing doodles. And then making became my therapy, and I would make to make sense of the world and who I am in it.”
Steve’s unique style and distinctive quirky humour have seen him garner a big following on Instagram, which has led to him selling prints of his work from his website.
Now, selling art is the backbone of his livelihood, which is, he says, modest. “People think I’m making a lot of money but I still have a mortgage to pay and everything,” he says. “But I’d just rather have a small place and simple life, and not have to compromise.”
This late-blossoming career as an artist is unexpected. Steve considers his work as part of the nebulous genre of outsider art: outsider artists may be late-starters, or they may have other reasons - imprisonment, social isolation, class barriers, or intellectual disabilities - why their work is not accepted into the mainstream art world.
“I quite like being the outsider,” he says. “I don’t know how the art world works, so I end up doing stuff wrong, and then people say it’s incredibly creative, but I just don’t know how it works.”
“I’ve been selling my work and having exhibitions and things like that, but it’s all been really accidental and spontaneous. Over the past ten years, I’ve been doing these projects, like the Lost Cat project, that I just see as having the world as your canvas to experiment on.”
One of these projects has been the Spongleheim Gallery, an online gallery for self-taught artists, which he founded last year. The gallery operates like a real-world space, holding open submissions for several exhibitions per year.
“I love it when I find a sense of innocence and naivety in my work and it’s why I love the work of outsider artists,” Steve says.
Another has been The Sound of Silence, the world’s first silent podcast. Recorded with 100 guests, including Eddie Izzard, former Beirut hostage crisis captive Terry Waite, and his own dog. The series took two and a half years to complete.
“They were all recorded face to face,” Steve says. “My constraints were, no episode longer than three minutes, two minutes of silence minimum. But there were no other rules.”
“I’m quite a shy person. With some people, we’d just kind of sit in a room together, or we’d glance at each other. There was another artist I recorded one with who wanted to hold hands and look into each others’ eyes, which was excruciating. If laughter happens, that’s part of it. We recorded an episode in Shoreditch in London, and while we were recording it, this really strong smell of weed wafted past, so there was some sniggering in that one.”
Recording an episode with Terry Waite in his home was a powerful experience. “I don’t even have the words for that,” he says. “It was just…him, in silence and solitude, this guy that spent five years in solitary confinement. Another of my favourites was with Eddie Izzard, and that was just minutes of me going, how the fuck did this happen. Eddie closed his eyes for the entire time.”
I listened to the Eddie Izzard episode, and several others. They’re not exactly silent: you can hear ambient noise, passing vehicles, birds, and that curious acoustic effect that lets you know what kind of room you’re in.
Like so many of Steve’s projects, the Sound of Silence podcast is open to interpretation; people have told him that they think it’s a podcast about anxiety, or relaxation. What matters most to him is the potential it has to make people think differently about the world….a little like the (not a) Lost Cat project.
How about that cat, then?
One day, Steve was out walking his dog when he saw a real Lost Cat poster.
“At the bottom of the poster, it said, take a photo of the poster so you can remember the cat, and I thought, I wonder if it’s really lost, or if this person is really proud that they have this great cat? It was like a kind of mountain lion thing, with slightly crossed eyes, and its face was slightly too small.”
Steve wondered if the cat was really lost, or if it was a clever ploy on behalf of the owner to ensure that everyone was walking around with a picture of the cat on their phone.
“I thought, that’s a brilliant way of doing a subversive project,” Steve says. “And I thought, what if I make something that looks like a lost cat poster from a distance, but when you get up close, it isn’t?”
Subversive? How is the project subversive? Is it political?
“It intentionally has no point to it whatsoever, and the world is obsessed with stuff having to have a point,” he says. “I’m big into existential philosophy, and this is essentially a project that points out the utter futility and meaninglessness of everything. And I take great comfort in that. It has no point to it, but it draws people in.”
“There’s more transformational power in the amorphous than in the concrete. Everything gets split into sides now, doesn’t it? But if something has no point to it, than it can’t have a pre-defined side. People will project onto it what they want it to mean. I got a message on Instagram that said ‘Your cat painting is a bit wank, to be honest mate.’ And I kind of liked that. I don’t think it’s a particularly good painting, but that’s not the point. The fact that it has no point means it can’t be pro-Brexit, or Anti-Vax. It can be anything.”
Steve painted his own version of a Lost Cat poster, put it on Instagram, and people started ordering prints of it.
In May, Steve stuck some up around Brick Lane in London and people started to photograph them.
“When a project gets a life of its own, I get into this moment where my logical adult brain is going, nah, stop, and my childlike brain is going, yay, keep going!” he says.
“It’s a sort of dance, I think. I’m improvising with the world, I’m thinking, what’s the offer here and how can I make it bigger and bigger? So I ordered a load of A4 posters, and I made an Instagram post, and started getting orders.”
Steve has sent “about 1,500” posters around the world, for free: he charges a nominal £1 for domestic, UK postage and £2 for anywhere else in the world. If you order them, he sends you two, so you get to keep one as a souvenir and put the other one up somewhere.
If you put a poster up, Steve asks that you photograph it and send it to him, along with the location, so he can add it to Google maps. Many people have ordered them but have not put them up in public locations, so of the thousands Steve has sent out, a couple of hundred are listed on his website. There’s an understandable cluster in the UK, and then there are the unexpectedly exotic locations: Tbilisi, the Georgian capital. Kharkiv in the Ukraine.
And soon, Antarctica, the final continent.
Steve sought this one out himself; he managed to find a researcher about to set off on a posting to the southern pole, and posted them to their home in LA. “It’s all dependent on the postal service, because it took seven weeks for a poster to reach France, but I’ve sent them to their home and they’ll bring them to Antarctica.”
A gentle re-weirding
The (not a) Lost Cat project, like so many of Steve’s projects, prompts some form of rethink of the world: similarly to how his own mind works, there’s insight here on generalities in our lives, if you take the time to look. The Lost Cat effect causes questions, if you allow time for them to take root.
The impacts of this can be rather larger and more important than a childlike black and white painting of a cross-eyed cat might initially suggest. And it sounds both subversive and political.
“I sort of have a mission to gently re-weird the world, to create pattern interruptions, where you’re going about your day to day life and suddenly something catches our imagination and interrupts that pattern,” Steve says.
“Who know’s what might happen as a result of that? It might make you think, it might make you order a cat poster, it might make you quit your job.”
He reads me the Nietzsche quote he keeps hanging on his wall, about learning to see the world as strange, about restoring your sense of wonder. “That’s what this project, and all the projects are really about,” he says.
What’s different this time, he says, is that he has no end in mind for Lost Cat. It has escaped him and populated its own terrain, a global one, in places he will never visit.
The inner critic
Steve seemed to get some childish glee from the “pile of wank” comment about his cat poster: how is his inner critic these days?
“I’ve got to the point where it still exists, but where I’ve rumbled most of my inner critics’ tactics, so words like ‘that’s rubbish,’ or ‘don’t do that,’ are gone now, but there’s still an underlying sense that I’ve probably done something wrong, without it being about anything in particular.”
“I drew this picture of some bread having a fight,” he holds up the picture so I can see it. “And I don’t care if my inner critic thinks it’s shit, I quite like it. So it doesn’t go away, it just changes form.”
“My friend is a Gestalt therapist and he says it’s like bindweed: when you first clear it, it takes ages and then it’s clear but it very soon grows back, and so it’s a process of maintenance. And that’s where I am, with my inner critic: it’s a subtle process of maintenance.”
As a writer, I tell him, I am hopelessly dependent on a constant process of critical self-evaluation: as I edit, I ask myself how successful each sentence is at communicating its intention. Don’t we kind of need our inner critic, to stop things being shit?
“Well that might just be the inner critic going, you need me or the other stuff would go,” he points out. “The inner critic starts to become a universal thing, like, ‘this isn’t very good because you are universally a bad writer. You’re not good at writing, you’re an imposter.’ Rather than, ‘that bit I wrote, I could do better than that next time.’ That’s more of a here and now adult judgement.”
“What I say to people is that if it’s a judgement or comparison that diminishes you in some way, it’s not helpful and it’s potentially the domain of the inner critic.”
A viral poster
It’s clear that, whatever childlike naivety Steve likes to keep in his art, he is an adept digital self-publisher, designer and curator, as well as a canny social media user. (not a) Lost Cat is, he points out, “a viral post, but in the real world.”
Tapping into the creative potential of digital tools, Steve says, for him is about “social media pointing people back towards the real social. People are going out and putting up these posters, people are sending me messages on Instagram saying they’ve just seen one. It’s putting everything back out into the real world.”
His Instagram use, he says, is a part of his creativity.
“To lead a creative life, number one, be fascinated, and number two, create windows into your world.”
“That completely changes the relationship with social media, when you’re using it as a window into your real world. And that’s where google maps is amazing – you can go, ‘look, there’s one in Hollywood.’ And you can zoom in and look at a picture of it. Isn’t that amazing? For all the ills the internet brings, you just have to use your imagination to reclaim some of the magic of it.”
He can’t control it, but he does have some ambitions for it: he’d like to crowdfund to get the (not a) Lost Cat poster on a billboard. In some way, he’d quite like for it to become a ubiquitous cultural artefact.
“If it becomes something like the ‘I heart New York,’ I like the idea of it becoming this stupid iconic image that people hate,” he says. “But if it inspires people to do some weird stuff, to do some projects without any objective, to re-weird in the world and make it a place with more wonder, that would be great.”
Postscript: Cork, the (not a) Lost Cat capital of Ireland
Cork is rapidly proving to be the (not a) Lost Cat cat capital of Ireland.
There’s one poster in Dublin, and one in Belfast, but not only do Cork city and Fermoy both have one, but after I talk to Steve, he emails me to tell me that he’s had two more orders for County Cork.
This bit is personal, and the stuff I don’t get to do for newspapers.
I don’t tell him that this is might be my fault.
You see, last week, I was covering holidays as a reporter on The Avondhu Press in North Cork, I wrote up a small piece, “Quirky poster in Fermoy is part of international art project.” It’s only available in their print or online subscriber edition.
And this is where the Lost Cat effect starts to make itself felt, that unravelling of questions larger than the poster, larger than the project. Questions about yourself and your place in the world, about the enmeshing effects of the social media hivemind, because it was on Twitter that I first saw the poster, and then effortlessly found Steve’s contact details to set up an interview.
Cork is small, but Cork is part of somewhere else too. I am small, but my actions and even thoughts create barely perceptible ripples into the real world. You begin with a poster of a cross-eyed cat, and you end up thinking about the quantum observer effect.
The Lost Cat effect now encircles me, because I am now part of the story, because I have written two articles about the project, and in doing so I may have unwittingly furthered the spread of the project. It’s all very meta: like a surreal comedy version of Nightcrawler. Have I created demand for a story and am now writing it? Is a memetic effect stoppable?
The Lost Cat effect certainly surrounds the unknown person or people who put up the original Cork and Fermoy posters. And Steve, of course. And whoever is taking winging their way to Antarctica with the poster.
And now, dear reader, it also includes you.