Paws and enjoy lovingly crafted Purrfection
Libby Cook-Toppan began taking pictures at the age of ten and never stopped. Purrfection, an exhibit of her work now on at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art, showcases the Maine Coon cats she owns and once bred.
Every purchase of her art will help support a cause that’s dear to her heart — the welfare of homeless cats. The photographer spoke with Lifestyle about her love for the animals and what she feels needs to be done to better protect them.
Q: How’d you become a breeder?
A: My husband, Loris Toppan, came to Bermuda to work from Canada and brought his beautiful half Maine Coon, Jazz, with him.
When Jazz passed away our dog was terribly lonely and we decided to try to get a Maine Coon kitten. Because of Bermuda’s import requirements we had to get a kitten from the UK. Soon after Maximus arrived, people began asking if we would breed him.
When Maximus was nine months old I contacted a breeder I’d made friends with in the US and asked if there was any chance she might be able to sell me an adult female. I had contacted her at precisely the right moment as she was moving to the UK.
She couldn’t afford to take all of her girls with her so the last two were scheduled to be spayed the following morning.
She cancelled their appointment and sent them both to me, along with a bevy of breeding books and information. As my breeding programme grew I needed to add more boys to the mix and after carefully researching bloodlines I found an incredible boy in the UK.
The only reason the breeder would even talk to me is because we discovered that my dear sweet breeder connection from the US, now in the UK, had sold her an amazing girl! It was an amazing journey, truly a labour of love and never a moneymaker.
What’s so great about Maine Coons?
Maine Coons are considered the dogs of cats. They’re very large breeds, very intelligent. They were only officially recognised as a breed in the last 100 years; they’re actually considered by some to be descended from Viking cats. They are quite similar to two other old breeds, the Siberian Forest cat and the Norwegian Forest cat.
They’re also stunningly beautiful, unlike any breed of cat I’ve ever known. They love water, are generally easy to bath and they can be extremely affectionate. They are semi long-haired and have the coolest tufts on the tips of their ears and on the bottoms of their paws. They also have enormous paws... like mini bobcats!
How long have you been a photographer?
I fell in love with photography at the age of ten and have been shooting with anything I can get my hands on ever since. It’s been a journey [and, at times,] hard for me to put myself out there. Photography doesn’t tend to get a fair shake when it goes up against [other forms of] art. Typically, people think you snap a picture and that’s it. They don’t factor in that you have to take lighting into account; that you [always] have to be ready to shoot; that you have to capture the right angle and the emotion — that’s much harder than people think.
It’s also physically hard — and not just the weight of the equipment. I sometimes feel like I’m doing yoga to get to the right angle but it’s so rewarding if you can get it just right. I haven’t done a lot in the last few years. I work full-time, I have a mini-zoo at home and I’m a wife and a mom — what I would like to do is generally put on the back burner.
How’d you find the time then to shoot these pictures?
I used to own a magazine, Bermuda Homes & Gardens, which is now dormant. Because I ran my business from home when I was publishing, I would often be working crazy hours and [would take pictures of the cats] as a break.
They’re just so soothing if you look into their eyes and they’re just so beautiful. It’s nearly a decade of work and I’m only showing 20. Trying to choose those out of about 1000 was painful.
You haven’t shown much of your work in recent years. Why this show?
I was given the opportunity to have this space [at] Homer’s Cafe, which is a very family-oriented space. I have a lot of recent work that I’ve been working on but it’s not the venue for it. I felt the venue deserved images that were more family-friendly. While stressing out about what to do I kept coming across pictures of the kittens. I asked [Masterworks’ director and curator of special exhibitions] Kate [Ross] and she was so sweet, so kind — she’s a cat lover — and encouraged me to do it.
You’re donating part proceeds to help homeless cats. Why?
Homeless cats in Bermuda have been getting a really bad rep and the saddest part is that they are homeless by no fault of their own, some were abandoned and some were born “feral”. I use this term loosely because, like our “feral” chickens, their heritage is domestic. I know a lot of people who have been feeding homeless cats from their own pockets — and I know the cost of feeding our eight. It can be really hard for these people to support these cats.
BFAB’s certainly tried but it’s primarily funded by one man and there’s only so far those resources can go. Cat food is expensive and so I thought if I could help at all, that would be fabulous. Also, my dream of a cat sanctuary was something that was getting louder in the back of my mind. The greatest obstacle is being able to purchase a piece of property for the cats to safely live out their days. I thought this was the perfect opportunity — to use the beauty of the kittens to draw attention to something that’s perhaps not so beautiful.
Any idea how many homeless cats there are here?
I don’t know the exact number of homeless cats but on such a small island there shouldn’t be any. Despite an heroic effort by BFAB spaying and neutering thousands of cats over the past two decades, and the availability of financial support for spaying and neutering from the SPCA, the number of homeless cats appears to have risen recently as a direct result of people either abandoning their cats and/or not having them spayed or neutered.
Conflicts with local residents, government parks and conservationists over nature reserves, is putting these unfortunate cats in jeopardy and the only truly humane answer is the creation of a cat sanctuary.
I take it that you’re a cat person? What’s so great about cats?
We have eight cats of our own and we regularly foster kittens but I’m an animal lover. We have 15 cockatiels and a huge flight aviary, two puppies and feral chickens that are now domesticated. I love all animals — insects, reptiles, birds. I love cats because they retain much of their wild ancestry. Unlike dogs who tend to be easily dominated and controlled (which is what many people like about them), cats tend not to be so easily dominated or controlled. You have to earn their affection.
• Purrfection runs through May 20 at Homer’s Café at Masterworks Museum of Bermuda Art. To help with creating a sanctuary in Bermuda, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.