The Surreal Cat Art of Matt McCarthy

If you’re a fan of cats and quirky artwork, then you won’t want to miss MAGNUS CATTUS, featuring 20+ giant cat pieces by Matt McCarthy, a Chapel Hill-based digital artist whose work will be on display at the Cary Arts Center from June 2 to 28. McCarthy’s humorous work has been seen by millions after going viral on social media, so if some pieces look familiar, chances are you’ve seen his purr-fect creations before!

McCarthy will be hosting a meet and greet on Friday, June 3 from 6-8 p.m., but we thought we’d catch up with the digital sensation prior to his biggest show to date and learn a little bit more about his paw-ssion for art.

Introduce yourself!

My name is Matt McCarthy, and I’m a Chapel Hill-based digital collage artist and cat lover who uses domestic felines as his primary subject matter. My works are composed of found images that are combined digitally to give them an uncanny realism. I love searching through source material to find two pictures that make a connection and click together. 

I am a full-time artist. I have a studio in my home where I create all of my pieces and produce my own prints. I sell prints, stickers, and cards of my pieces in my shop and work with companies and publishers around the world to create images for use in products and media. When not making artwork, I write scary screenplays with my wife. We’ve been recognized in major competitions, and our first short film is currently in post-production. 

How did you get your start?

My journey to digital art grew out of my work as a hand-cut paper collage artist. I was struggling to bring some of my ideas, specifically my giant cat collages, into reality through analog means, and thought that Photoshop might provide the tools to help me realize my vision. I had previously used the program for illustration work, so I knew how it worked in drawing terms, but there was a learning curve when trying to apply it to this new medium. 

I consider myself self-taught because despite having a background in the arts and architecture, I’ve had no formal training in digital art. It’s been a fun, challenging, and surprising journey to where I am today, and I’m constantly learning new techniques to help me better realize the scenes floating around in my head. 

Why cats? 

I’m often asked why I don’t use dogs or other animals in my pieces, and the answer is that cats simply speak to me in a way other subjects do not. I’ve been a cat person since the first moment I lived with one, but the choice to use them as my primary subject matter came after I started to really appreciate their personalities. I found their way of thinking to be similar to my own, but in a completely unabashed way that I envied. I had been searching for a voice to comment on the world around me, and I found comfort and power in using cats as a stand-in for myself. There’s an ageless tradition of humans personifying animals (specifically their pets), so it felt natural to use them as my surrogate in my art. 

Who/what are your biggest inspirations?

I draw a lot of inspiration from the surrealist and pop artists of the 20th century, as well as the mid-century modern architects. I try to bring whimsy and wonder to my pieces, while also crafting them with a high level of precision that satisfies my exacting brain. Digital collage and surrealism have been extremely popular over the last few years, and there are countless artists working in those spaces who inspire me on a daily basis. It’s been great to have a community of like-minded artists who can support each other through the ups and downs of being a creative. 

All that being said, my biggest inspiration by far is cats themselves. In my practice I look at hundreds of cats a week, and their expressions and personalities are what drive my work and captivate my imagination. 

Where has your work been published?

My work has been shared widely on the web, including by some major social media accounts like Pubity, Cats of Instagram, Saatchi Gallery, and Adobe. My work has also appeared in Birdy Magazine, Allegory Ridge, and the book Collage Care, for which I also contributed an essay on the value of collage. Most recently, my work was featured in the premier cat magazine in Germany, Geliebte Katze. My work has also been published by numerous stationery companies, including a large 1,500-piece Vacation Cats puzzle featuring over a dozen of my pieces that was published by Galison last year.

Why do you think your work has gone viral? 

I think my work has become popular because people love cats and need a bit of escapism. Most of my pieces are lighthearted (at least on the surface) and transport viewers to a surreal alternate timeline where giant cats walk among us. It’s a nice distraction. And who doesn’t love looking at cute cat pics? The initial response to my work was positive, but it did take time to find an audience. Thankfully, I’ve been able to connect with people all over the world through a shared love of cats. 

Do you have a favorite piece?

I don’t really have a favorite piece, but I do have a favorite location. I often use my old stomping ground of New York City. I spent a large chunk of my adult life in NYC (Brooklyn in particular) and it remains my favorite location to stage my works. There’s an evocative timelessness to New York City that makes it such a compelling background for giant cats, and I’m sure I’ll be using pics from the city for the rest of my career.


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