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NZ's Most Influential Arts Muse?

How does one household pet inspire so much creativity? We break down the Mittens effect on art, music and mental health.

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When we think about all the incredible Kiwis to make an impact in 2020, a year when we’ve needed them perhaps more than ever, certain names stick out.

A glance at the New Zealander of the Year nominations shows those who have stood up during the COVID-19 era - Jacinda Ardern, Dr Ashley Bloomfield and Siouxsie Wiles have all left an indelible mark on this country. 

But the nomination that grabbed the most attention around the world has also had quite the impression on the arts world.  

Mittens, the cat that went from local cult hero to online feline phenomenon, was the most popular story on The Big Idea this year for his mini-exhibition at Wellington Museum post lockdown - and the global attention followed with the movement to make him New Zealander of the Year.

So what does Mittens do other than turn up at hot spots in Wellington and bring joy to the now over 60K members in his Facebook group

Meow that's what I call music

Not content with being a visual art muse and social media darling, a song about Mittens and his adventures has this week gone top of the iTunes charts, written by 2020 Children’s Tui Award Finalist Chris Sanders and Natalie Conaty.

The Mittens effect

Photo: Experience Wellington.

He may have carved a niche in the creative realm, but his celebrity isn’t just making people smile. It’s actually, genuinely changing lives.

Mittens and his human, Silvio Bruinsma have used his fame to help other animals in need and to boost happiness amongst the community. “Cats play an important role in people’s mental health. He’s helped people feel better about life,” Bruinsma explains.

That mini-exhibition for His Royal Floofiness that ran from July to October this year had a whopping 19,703 visitors. Bearing in mind, this is without international tourism so these are Kiwis alone. Typical summer numbers with overseas tourists, only topping that by a few thousand.

The exhibition also raised $7028.54 for Wellington SPCA from the Mittens merchandise sales of mugs, notebooks, totes and badges. As they still have more merchandise left, due to popular demand and overseas orders, this number is likely to have grown. Through the photo booth that was leant to them by Photobooth Fun, they raised an additional $1872.70. To top it off, over 8 large boxes of pet food were collected and donated to Wellington SPCA.

Photo: Experience Wellington.

The interactive nature of the exhibition meant that many of those who attended didn't just look at creativity, they took part in it themselves. In an era where there is much bemoaning of a lack of creativity in schools, the joy on the faces of the youth who attended radiates a love for the arts and creativity. Another notch in Mittens' collar. 

Photo: Experience Wellington.

A legend is born

So how did this all happen? I chatted with Bruinsma about what it’s like to have such a famous pet. A weird conversation starter in most circumstances, but he barely even flinches with the topic.

Bruinsma recalls a lady called Sam from the SPCA created the Facebook group back in 2018 because she was worried about Mittens and it was a means for tracking all of his adventures. Bruinsma didn’t even know about the group until the Herald tracked him down for comment.

Now as the admin, the group is more for seeing what he’s up to, and as Mittens is quite good at being a cat, there isn’t fear about the danger he could get into. There’s just more marvel at his travels and his floofiness. 

Photo: Justin Nelson.

Cat in demand

Bruinsma reveals that having a famous cat is nothing like he’d ever expected. “Cats make our house a home, and it’s interesting sharing him with the world.” He finds it very rewarding to see the great influence and happiness that Mittens brings. But there are some challenging aspects - in fact, similar fame pitfalls to human creatives. 

“We had people camping outside our house,” he says, “just to spot Mittens. So there is the odd occasion where people are intruding on privacy, where they need to be mindful. But on the plus side, Mittens has created a wonderful community, and positivity that he brings.”

Photo: Josh Wright.

The exhibition was actually scaled up due to interest, and Bruinsma partnered with a Wellington-based business called Embroid Me Wellington Every dollar after cost goes to the SPCA. So with the funds raised from the exhibition and the Mittens Merch created, they’ve raised well north of 15K. 

The fundraising is going towards a goal for the SPCA for ‘cat enrichment’. This is to make the environment a nicer place for cats to grow up in. Bruinsma says that ultimately, they’d like to have all the work done by Christmas and there will be some cool art in the SPCA by an ex Weta artist.

Arts muse

Fan art from Mittens: Floofy and Fabulous exhibition. Photo: Courtney Brown.

What’s it like having people draw cat fan art for your cat? Bruinsma shrugs “well, he is a pretty cat.” The art really kicked off during lockdown, where people had a bit more time on their hands. Bruinsma even has a few pieces of Mittens fan art hanging up at home. 

A lady from Columbia had reached out to him to let him know that her father was ill, and one thing he looked forward to everyday about this cat from the other side of the world. 

The fame of Mittens always surprises him as it’s always other people putting him forward, like his nomination as New Zealander of the year. There’s a book, a calendar and other things in the pipeline so Mittens Merch and Mittens Madness is in full swing.

Abstract sculpture of Mittens by Simon Grimes. Photo: Trade Me.

Trade Me has been a hot spot for art on some of New Zealand’s favs, including a sketch of Mittens and Dr Ashley Bloomfield sold for $600 with 10% of the proceeds going to the SPCA. Wellington Museum auctioned off the large banners of Mittens on Trade Me with 20% of proceeds going to the SPCA, with the rest going towards keeping the museum events free and accessible. My favourite was Mittens in his cubist phase (see above).

A global and local impact on museum exhibitions, music, social media, promoting a positive treatment of animals and mental health - all through the creative channels. There are lots of reasons why 2020 has been forgettable, but for Mittens’ army of admirers, His Floofiness has given them smiles and memories in a year that frankly didn’t have enough of them. Mittens has my vote!

Written by

Courtney Rose Brown

17 Dec 2020

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