The colorful life of Cat Wondergem
By Jenna-Ley Jamison
The artistic gene runs rampant through generations of Catherine “Cat” Wondergem’s family, and it’s a deep-rooted trait that’s weaved its way into every aspect of her life.
“I’ve always known my mom’s side of the family was artistic—my grandfather was a jazz musician, my grandmother was a painter and her siblings were musicians,” Wondergem said.
It seemed only natural that during her schooling years, she routinely chose art as her elective of choice to foster a budding imagination. Because her mom was an elementary school teacher, Wondergem also had easy access to art supplies.
But structured schooling never seemed the right fit for her; after attending University of Tennessee for two-and-a-half years, studying under the art and architecture program, Wondergem vacated the idea of an art degree and left secondary education. Quite introverted at the time, she felt her reserved personality would hinder her from being able to properly market herself as a lucrative artist.
Wondergem later entered the bartending scene in Virginia Beach, Virginia, but never abandoned her deep-seeded passion for art.
“I’ve always created for a career,” she said.
Wondergem later moved to Franklin, North Carolina and then Asheville—a haven for both seasoned and amateur artists to flourish. It was there in the mountainous city of creativity that she met her like-minded creative partner, who was running a metal business at the time.
“I jumped into that with him, and we’ve had a good synergy ever since,” Wondergem said.
After dabbling in metal jewelry making and other art mediums—glass work, silk dying, pewter work and even custom work for churches and historical societies—Wondergem took up print making as her main form of art in 2016.
She transitioned from the nautical-focused, Japanese art form dubbed “gyotaku.” It was a niche form of printmaking she adopted upon moving to the Lowcountry in 2007 and involves pressing paper against an actual fish—covered in ink or paint—to create a print.
Wondergem now immerses herself in “relief printing,” a form of printmaking that utilizes linoleum blocks.
“I carve blocks out of linoleum and after printing them, add watercolor to add color,” she said. “With printmaking, one of the goals is to be able to reproduce what you’ve printed so the block is there to have a standard and keep printing the same (image).”
And her subject matter has since expanded beyond scales and marine life.
“I really focus on snapshots of life. I love people. I love observing their rough edges, their kindness and ugly sides…just like their whole package,” Wondergem said. “And of course, I throw in a lot of animals; I love animals more than people.”
While Wondergem’s prints showcase life’s most intricate and distinctive moments, she never relies on photographs to dictate her art, though she uses pictures for “good perspectives or good dimension.”
“(The prints) come from my imagination,” she said. “They’re my designs. …I have a big imagination that cranks out ideas …Sometimes I just have a vision of what I want (to create), and sometimes it comes to me as I work, which always makes for slower progress.”
Her prints typically range in size from 8x10 inches to 9x12 inches—and on occasion, as large as 18x24 inches.
After first drawing her idea “pretty minimally” onto a linoleum block, Wondergem then uses her carving tools to further define her work. Though seemingly complex to the non-artistic eye, she considers her skilled trade to be quite archaic and simplistic in a way—kindling her inner child.
“Printmaking (has) very primitive tools, and you can take it anywhere,” she said. “And it’s just very vibrant to me; I feel like a child when I’m creating it. I like the simplicity.”
Printmaking is also great for traveling—her and her partner are often on the road to art shows around the Southeast.
“I like (printmaking) the most because it’s very mobile,” Wondergem said. “We spend a lot of time on the road. We had at one point converted two different school buses, and we thought we would just live on the road.”
One of her favorite art shows—and one that’s rightly recognized her work multiple times with top awards and accolades—is Charleston’s Piccolo Spoleto Outdoor Art Exhibition.
“It’s unexpected; it’s not what I do shows for, but it’s very flattering,” Wondergem said. “It makes me feel like I need to keep doing it and be authentic in terms of my subject matter.”
Art shows are also special times for Wondergem to connect with the public—whether viewers of her pieces are similarly art enthusiasts or newcomers to the art world. No matter who is observing her work—a direct reflection of her own life experiences—it’s Wondergem’s hope that a piece speaks to someone in a deeply personal way.
“When I’m in my booth, you can always tell that one of my prints resonates with a person…because they’ll stop and ask questions about it,” she said. “Something about that print is something they’ve probably been through or going through right now. With each different block, I want them to feel seen. I want them to feel somebody knows or has an idea of what (they’ve) been through; (They) feel recognized or appreciated or supported in what (they’re) going through.”
Female empowerment and self-reflection are often the themes she intertwines into her work.
“I try to encourage doing your inner work, figuring out why you do the things you do and knowing yourself well and having stamina—knowing that life definitely can have some downs, but you’ve got this,” Wondergem said. “It’s within your capability to thrive and find your community and find love.”
While printmaking is her current focus, weaving has also piqued her interest and is one art form she’s determined to try.
“Weaving on a loom would be just fantastic,” Wondergem said. “It’s very tactile; it’s just overwhelmingly beautiful watching line by line as something comes together.”
Regardless of what shape it assumes, Wondergem’s art will always be the heartbeat of her purpose, connecting her to others.
“Art means connection to me,” she said. “Art—just the right piece—can make you feel really seen or understood or take you somewhere that you’d rather be. It makes you think, and I’d like to do the same for somebody else.”
For more on Cat Wondergem and her art, visit www.catwondergemart.com or check out her pieces at Karen's Korner Frame and Art Gallery at 1405 Ben Sawyer Blvd. Suite 101 in Mt. Pleasant.