Cynthia Calhoun would have preferred that her cats remain healthy. But the journey that’s marked her pets’ recent illnesses, and the artwork it inspired, has led Calhoun to a new phase within her own life and artistic pursuit.
The Waynesville-based painter, who goes by the artist name Cyndi, grew up in Colorado and traces her love of art back to a poster mural she made as a kindergartner with her older sister, Sheila Marietta.
“I distinctly remember that blue-sky day, painting outside in the sun, with vivid colors running all over the paper, wrinkling it to give it character,” she says.
Though encouraged throughout her youth to pursue art as her profession, Calhoun opted instead to study anthropology at Colorado College, and later Spanish and education at Appalachian State University, convinced a career in the arts would be too unpredictable without a backup plan.
“I thought that if I pursued art as an undergraduate major, I might somehow get burnt out on it — and I loved art too much to risk that,” she says. “I knew if I could get a solid foundation through a fine art minor and even pursuing the portfolio track at ASU, that would be enough to allow me to carve out my own path and creative journey without being too influenced by any one person or artist.”
Calhoun met her future husband, John Calhoun, while teaching at a Colorado ski area, and together they moved to his native Haywood County in 2007. No matter her location, Cynthia Calhoun notes that her creative odyssey has always been an outward reflection of her inward journey. Part of that trek involved a desire to connect with her family’s Latina background, which prompted her to major in Spanish at ASU and, in turn, led her to Frida Kahlo, the famed Mexican artist.
“[Kahlo’s] work of self-portraits and the brilliant colors she used informed my own creations,” Calhoun says. “I became unafraid to use bold, maybe even wild, colors in my work. I created self-portraits in rainbow colors. I let loose, fearless of what a portrait was ‘supposed to look like.’”
Later, while studying in Spain, seeing Pablo Picasso’s “Guernica” in person brought Calhoun to tears. She recalls feeling “frozen, as if any sudden movement would somehow plunge [her] into that world of exquisite suffering.”
Shortly thereafter, she delved into Southwestern art in an attempt to explore her Latin American ancestors’ history in that part of the world. The earthy colors and styles of art have since become an integral component of her creations, always in tribute to this cultural inspiration.
“In my artwork, I love finding ways to use hard lines and values. Perhaps that’s because of the Southwestern period I went through: geometric lines and shapes show up strongly in Southwestern art,” she says. “Not surprisingly, I moved into a more geometric period, creating drawings with marker on paper. That morphed into a period of creating mandalas. I suppose on some level I am always seeking to find truth and balance in the work that I do, searching within myself or trying to find my center.”
In addition to painting, Calhoun has taught Spanish to elementary school students and worked as a digital marketer and content writer. She and her husband have also been longtime cat parents to Ralphie, and in October 2021, they adopted kitten sisters Emma, Elsa and Ellie to help keep their adult cat company.
After some adjustment to the new litter, Ralphie gradually accepted his sisters. But in early December, Emma developed health issues and was diagnosed with feline infectious peritonitis, caused by certain strains of the feline coronavirus. The veterinarian informed the family Emma only had a few days to live.
“I kept thinking about how she was such a little innocent creature and that she didn’t deserve such a terrible fate,” Calhoun says. “I was already so bonded to her, too — to all her sisters, really. I was smitten and wanted to do what I could to save her.”
Sleepless nights led Calhoun to discover an unlicensed treatment called GS-441524 from the FIP Warriors 5.0 group on Facebook that touted a high cure rate and thousands of cats saved worldwide. Though skeptical at first, she was soon convinced through additional research to administer the medicine to Emma and says the decision saved her cat’s life.
But in late March, Emma’s sister Elsa started losing her appetite and weight, and was later diagnosed with FIP as well. Fortunately, she too has responded to the treatment, but the ordeal took its toll on her human housemates. Calhoun says that she and her husband felt as if they “existed in a fog of cats, treatments, regular work, a lack of sleep and the uncertainty of not knowing if [their] little kittens would ultimately survive.”
To cope, Calhoun painted a picture of Emma. The act, she says, created a level of calmness that she hadn’t experienced since before the cat’s illness.
“Subsequent paintings with Emma, and later Elsa, helped me to stay in the moment. I could channel all the nervous energy of not knowing what was going to happen into something positive,” she says. “I’d always have something that made me think of these two cats and smile, no matter what happened. It was then that I thought that maybe these kittens could make others smile, too.”
She continues, “I thought that perhaps other pet parents might find comfort in having a portrait of their pet — not as a photo, but as a stylistic painting. I decided to offer commissions painting other people’s pets as part of my business model.”
Further inspired after the death of her sister Charlene Marietta in late May, Calhoun launched Art Funky at the end of June and has created a business model that will donate all profits from her colorful, exaggerated paintings to charity. The first beneficiary is the Emergency FIP Fund, an offshoot of the FIP Warriors group that helps cat parents pay for the costly FIP treatment.
“In light of the life-threatening battle my kittens faced, and then witnessing the declining health and passing of my sister, I kept thinking how I would regret not taking the leap,” she says. “Was I truly ready? Not really. But I’ve long since thought that if you wait until you’re absolutely ready to take a risk, you’ll never go for it. You have to face your fears and the sooner you do, the faster and closer you’ll get to your goals.”
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This article is part of our ongoing feature, Creatives in the Crowd, which focuses on local artists — both established and new. The feature spotlights unique stories and innovative artistic approaches within our creative community. Unlike much of our Arts & Culture reporting, these stories are not tied to upcoming events, exhibits or releases. The feature strives to represent a diverse range of voices, experiences and artistic mediums. If you’d like to nominate a community member for consideration, please reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Creatives in the Crowd.”