Can-do artist: ‘Kitty Kans’ are pawsitively adorable

Blame it on Howard. Or Chunky Monkey, Alphy, Grizzly and Pumpkin.

Artist Jeff Haynie’s Kitty Kans are as varied as the subjects he paints in his recycled cat-food cans.

Blame it on Howard.

Or Chunky Monkey, Alphy, Grizzly and Pumpkin.

It’s all their fault that Jeff Haynie ended up with all those empty cat food cans and nothing to do with them.

Being a person who believes in “re-purposing” things, it always bugged him to be tossing those cans, even in the recycle bin.

“It was the cats,” Haynie said. “They kept looking at me when I was throwing those cans away.”

What resulted is his own brand of art, appropriately called Kitty Kans. Meant to be something that can be hung on the wall, each Kat Kan has its own personality, complete with a hand-painted face, sculpted ears, wire whiskers and jeweled collar.

And it’s only one of the many cat-inspired art works that Haynie does.

Haynie, a Bainbridge Island resident, has been an artist for more than 30 years. He began his creative adventures while studying art at East Texas State University. He grew up in Baton Rouge, La., and attended Louisiana Tech University before moving to Texas. It was there that he met and married his wife, Sherri.

“As a kid, I spent a lot of time fishing in warm rivers of the South for bass, bream and catfish,” he said.

“As I would wade down the river fishing, the water and glistening highlights on the river bottom instilled in me a desire to depict dramatic light in my paintings. At school recess, I would find a tree to sit under and draw spaceships and creatures while all my classmates were playing on the playground.”

Later, he worked with airbrush techniques and began combining his own art with illustration.

Following college, Haynie opened Green Acres Studio, a full-service illustration studio, and produced illustrations for a wide variety of clients including American Airlines, Disney, Warner Brothers, Texas Instruments, Bell Helicopter, Frito-Lay, Pepsi, Dr. Pepper, IBM, Focus on the Family, Xerox, Bic Pens and Mead paper. His work appeared in everything from airlines magazines, to “point to purchase” displays in grocery stores, to folders that students used to put their school papers in.

During this time, he also taught illustration classes at the University of North Texas. It was there that one of his students introduced him to art via the computer.

“I was very resistant,” he said. “I was a traditional artist and didn’t think that doing art on the computer was real art.”

The friend soon upgraded his computer and gave Haynie the old one.

“I knew it was the way of the future and that I had to learn it,” Haynie said. “So I started playing around and began to see that the art was the same because the creation came from the artist, whether it was on a computer or not.”

In 1997, he left Texas and went to work for DreamWorks SKG in Los Angeles.

“Steven Spielberg’s movies and stories had been an early inspiration for me, so the idea of being able to work for him was a dream come true and an incredible opportunity,” Haynie said. “As I was exposed to the ideas of entertainment design, motion graphics, visual storytelling, concept development, art direction for interactive game development, my paintings took a brand new direction.”

For the next dozen years, he directed as well as produced art for video games, including “Medal of Honor,” “Small Soldiers,” “Need for Speed,” “Evil Dead,” “Clive Barker’s Undying” and “Vegas,” for companies such as DreamWorks Interactive, Electronic Arts, THQ and Midway (now Warner Brothers).

Eventually he went to work for Big Fish Games, directing the Mystery Case Files series. His first full project as art director was Mystery Case Files: Return to Ravenhearst.

“Creating art for these type of games is like creating an interactive novel where story, artwork, game design and cinematography all comes together to make a storybook experience,” he said. “The idea of moving the camera around the environment in the tradition of the old ‘point-and-click’ adventure games like “Myst” was exciting. It was a big commercial success.”

It was while working for Big Fish that he moved from Los Angeles to Seattle where Big Fish had an office.

He and his wife were finally able to buy their first home in Kent, a 1921 Craftsman which they restored.

In 2010, they went looking for a place to live that was home to other artists and they found Bainbridge Island.

“It was a perfect place because I could commute to Seattle and it had lots of galleries and places to get to know the art community,” he said.

During the day, he worked on games, and at night, he came home and work on his personal paintings, most of which were of whimsical cats and fish.

“The fish were with me from my early days in Louisiana,” he said. “The cats were a different matter.”

As his wife tells, Jeff was never a cat person. In fact, when they were first married they had dogs and she wanted a cat. It took several attempts by her sister and then, finally in 1996, they added Miss Joshua to their family.

“The first night, she curled up with Jeff and that was it,” said Sherri. “She was his kitty after that.”

Miss Joshua was the first cat that Haynie painted. From his experiences painting fantasy characters, came his whimsical cats.

In 2011, he opened Fin and Fur Studio and last year, Haynie retired from his “professional” career, to work at home in his studio drawing and painting cats, fish and whatever else he wants.

His Kitty Kans are just one of his many lines. To that he has added jewelry (that he calls wearable art), plus posters, cards, bookmarks and ornaments.

His most recent items are cat cut-outs that he calls Purr Pals. Painted on 1/4-inch-thick wood, the cut-out cat faces attach to the corner of frames, the tops of computer screens and other items.

His work has been selected to be shown in the Best of the Northwest Arts and Fine Crafts Show March 29-30 in Seattle. He shows in local galleries and is on the Bainbridge Island Studio Tours.

Whether it’s a wall painting or a piece of jewelry, each are handcrafted and one-of-a-kind, Haynie said.

It’s been a long 30-plus years, Haynie said, to get to the place where he’s spending his days creating from the stories that are his and his alone.

“The world of illustrating for others, whether it was Looney Tunes for a store display or working on games for DreamWorks, was a good life,” he said. “But to have the time to be able to get all my ideas out and share them with others — that’s my dream come true.”

From his journey comes a few simple words of wisdom.

“Believe in yourself,” he said. “My goal in my work is to encourage others to be themselves because they are the only ‘they’ that will ever be. There isn’t anybody like you. Just build on that.”

And, if perhaps a cat enters the picture, let it cross your path.

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