Small plates and other tiny treasures from Cat Clay
It’s been said that calico cats bring good luck and fortune to their owners. Such is the case for local artist Sabra Wood, who describes herself as the “mediocre servant and sole employee” of Cat Clay. Her calico, Clifton Wood, initially founded Cat Clay, and when Clifton passed away (coincidentally, on the same day as Prince), her younger calico, Beckett Wood, assumed the role of “Dalai Kitten” and owner. Beckett even signs the checks. Wood’s pieces and show submissions are all under one of the two cats’ names. “I never liked signing things with ‘Anonymous,’” explains Wood. Guess the cat’s out of the bag now!
Wood hails from Detroit and moved to Rochester via Xerox. With several degrees under her belt, including one in library science and an MBA in finance, she worked in the corporate world as a CPA for more than twenty years before developing a cognitive disability that prevented her from continuing. “Overnight, I had trouble reading, writing, counting, getting dressed, and finding my way to the office—so, no more Xerox,” she says, “and Beckett said, ‘You’d better not be taking up space at home. Don’t even think about filling your time with shopping—that’s fewer cat toys for me.’ So, I took clay classes.” She spent her time at Rochester Institute of Technology and what is now Flower City Arts Center.
Cat Clay pieces have a distinct look and a healthy infusion of humor. “At shows, I’ll have my head down, writing up sales and wrapping purchases, and I’ll hear new folks wander into my booth and start laughing. It makes my day,” says Wood. She describes her work as sweetly seditious and says that most of her ideas strike while she’s in the shower—basically, when she’s not being bombarded with other messages. Inspiration comes from many sources, and, of course, cats are in the mix. “Beckett is a living, breathing reference on mischief,” she says. Wood depicts other critters as well. A snarky political image of a squirrel holding a gun stemmed from her being fed up with gun violence and the National Rifle Association. Another piece, Murder Capital, symbolizes her frustration with the city’s efforts to get rid of crows and the homicide rate. It juxtaposes a murder of crows with the city flower.
Wood’s process of designing, printing, applying images, and firing the pieces she makes are the hallmarks of her Picture Pots and Pop Vintage pieces. Much of what she does is dependent on what temperature the glaze requires to fire. “Too high, and the images get eaten by the glaze. Too low, and they rub off,” she explains. “Because I develop my own glazes, I understand the melting point.” The process becomes trickier when dealing with vintage china in the Pop Vintage line, an idea that emerged after fantasizing about updating the vintage plates she owned with pop images. She first has to test the plates for lead to ensure they don’t contaminate the kiln. “I got lucky with the first batch of four plates—they all worked! Reality set in as I fired more and only thirty percent worked. The glaze on vintage china is fired to many temperatures. Thank God I’m good at documentation—my success rate is seventy percent now.” The outcome is a sepia design on a vintage pattern that is softened by the high temperature. Cat Clay plates are easily recognizable, which comes in very handy when perusing thousands of anonymous works at Rochester Contemporary Art Center’s annual 6×6 exhibition.
Her arguably most hilarious and clever series immortalizes celebrities in some of their finest moments: while incarcerated. “I had a fellow potter doing a pop-up in my studio and she wanted to do mugs. We thought of ‘Mugshot’ for the title—not realizing that Beth Bloom had used it at Equal Grounds, but she was cool with it. Then, in the shower, I thought to myself: why not add real mug shots to my mugs? Next thing you know, I’m addicted to mug shots.” David Bowie’s Rochester arrest was the first mug, but other notables have included Prince, Jerry Garcia, Tupac Shakur, and even Abby Wambach.
Additionally, Wood hosts a weekly radio show on WAYO 104.3 FM on Thursday evenings called Graphic Ear. She explains how that happened: “I was helping out WAYO when they were forming, using past experience in strategy. I was asking Mike [Yates] what would make this station different, and he turned the question on me—what would I want to hear? This led to a discussion of what music artists listen to. A while later, Mike asked me to have a show. I’d never done radio before, and when I told him my brain couldn’t run the board, he found my radio partner, Joey [Paladino].” The show is a combination of talk and music with Wood inviting local artists to chat about their work and the music that inspires them.
She’s had many memorable interviews but mentions a few stand-outs: “Maybe Kathy Farrell, talking about going downtown as a kid to a dentist appointment and then using the bus fare to buy records. Nate Hodge discussed the inherent anxiety in making art. Lindsey Downey shared her story about becoming addicted to heroin and her recovery. Then there was Clayton Cowles with an amazing chat about comic lettering and his cats. How about Olivia Kim? Her love of dance and study of the human body transfers into her sculptures. Athesia Benjamin discussed art and politics. We’ll never forget Greg Caggiano discussing finding his birth family in under five minutes on Facebook; or behind-the-scenes stories about Downton Abbey and Project Runway by the wonderful hat designer, Zebulon Hounslea.”
Wood continues, “When I left Xerox, I left behind an entire social network and I felt pretty isolated in my strange, new world. Becoming an artist, hosting pop-ups, having a radio show—this has introduced me to a whole new group of folks. As for making art—it gives me a new way to justify taking up space and consuming resources.” One thing that did carry over from her time at Xerox was her small but mighty nonprofit. Sample Soap collects unopened toiletries and personal hygiene products to provide to those in need. I first heard about this program when I worked at Parkleigh ten years ago, and it continues to be a collection site today (more collection information is on samplesoap.net). “I wanted something more than checkbook charity—I wanted to do something,” says Wood, “A friend helped start My Friend’s Place in Hollywood. In their newsletter, I read about a woman who knew a rock band and had them collect toiletries while on tour. I knew a ton of suits who traveled a lot.” Wood continues, “The great thing about Sample Soap is that we have a “no guilt” rule. It applies to me. And every day, whenever I do something with Sample Soap, I feel better—even if I’m having a crap-tacular day!”
Cat Clay is located in the Hungerford Builfing, where Wood operates a studio, kiln room, and a storage area. She is particularly active in the First Friday, Second Saturday, and other events that the Hungerford hosts throughout the year. Those looking for unique holiday gifts can find Cat Clay (along with Sample Soap) at the Mayday Underground Holiday Craft Market at Village Gate on November 3. November is also when her annual mug sale occurs. In December, she’ll be having a studio holiday sale with two other artists, as well as collecting spare change and food for rescue kittens. January brings a new year and an old favorite—the annual soup bowl benefit for Healthy Sisters. Cat Clay also has several local retail partners for whom Wood is particularly grateful. “I truly appreciate their willingness to carry our line and take a chance on new items.” Asked if she has anything else to add, Wood simply responds: “Beckett rules the universe. She’s the owner of Cat Clay. And I am never worthy.”
Find Cat Clay on Instagram at @cat.clay, Twitter at
@CatClayRoc, and at catclay.com.
Stacey Rowe is a freelance writer and artist living in Rochester. She can be found on Instagram and Twitter @thestaceyrowe and staceyrowe.com. Tune in to WAYO 104.3 FM on November 29 from 6 to 7 p.m. when she will be a guest on Wood’s show, Graphic Ear.