Winter 2019 - Features

For Pete’s Sake

By November 14, 2019 No Comments

It’s a long, crazy story that he pretty much just chalks up to divine intervention, because he says there is really no other way to explain it. But before you read any more about how, once upon a time, he quit his engineering job to paint pictures of an ugly little cat that somehow became a beloved children’s book character so popular Leonardo DiCaprio’s manager helped turn it into an animated Amazon Original series, James Dean ’82 needs you to know something.

He needs you to know that he doesn’t hate Auburn.

“I think it actually used the word ‘hate’,” he says of the last time someone wrote about him and Pete, back in March 2019.

I try to click on the story to check, but it does not load.

“Well, that’s not the truth, and I want to make sure it doesn’t happen with this article.”

He would sit on the steps of Samford Hall at night wondering how on earth he was supposed to be an engineer for the rest of his life.

He is in the car as he is telling me this, on the way to Fort Payne’s second annual Pete the Cat Day, and he is kind of laughing as he says it. Because that is what James Dean does — he laughs, he smiles, he wears crazy hats, he cries. He is an emotional guy; when they introduced him last year at Fort Payne’s first Pete the Cat Day, he’s not sure how long he just stood there sobbing on the sidewalk, but it felt like a while. Hey, comes with the territory, he says — he is an artist. But you can hear it in his voice — the idea that he hated Auburn? Nothing funny about that. That bothered him.

Sure, he was kind of an Alabama fan growing up in Huntsville and Fort Payne, Ala., as were plenty of folks in his family who still haven’t forgiven him. But dang if he didn’t fall in love with the Loveliest Village in, like, two minutes. He can still hear how the stadium sounded during his first football game. He can still hear all the shouting during the Friday Night Free Movies at Langdon Hall. Even the food was great in college. During freshmen orientation, they took him to this new place called Momma Goldberg’s that had these crazy things called bagels. You were supposed to put cream cheese on them. He got one. “They steamed it so that it was soft,” he says. “They were awesome.”

So, once again, for the record, no — he does not hate Auburn. Nor did he ever hate Auburn. Auburn was great.

CHOOSING MATH OVER SNOOPY

It was just that trying to learn electrical engineering was kind of brutal, he says — that’s all. That is what he told the reporter — that engineering was hard and that he struggled, and that he would sit on the steps of Samford Hall at night wondering how on earth he was supposed to be an engineer for the rest of his life. But coming out of Fort Payne High School in 1976, that is what he wanted to be. Or rather, that is what he thought he should do. There was a recession on, after all. Artists were not exactly in high demand. Sure, he liked painting and drawing, and he was great at sketching Snoopy. But he was also pretty good at math. His family didn’t have much money growing up—but engineers did.

So go to Auburn, everyone told him. Great engineering school, everyone told him.

Pete at Momma Goldberg's Deli

His favorite class?

Art — basic drawing — during his last quarter. It was 1982.

“I have this really vivid memory of walking past the art building, and there were students out on the grass drawing pictures of buildings, and I wanted to do that,” Dean says. “My teacher was fantastic. He taught me a lot. By the end of the quarter, he said ‘You should think about studying art.’ I said, ‘Well, I’m graduating.’ But that always stuck with me. He thought I had some talent.”

He graduated, took a job with Georgia Power in the land of Herschel Walker and did not draw anything for a decade.

“I didn’t draw at all for ten years when I moved to Athens,” Dean says. “That was not a great time to be an Auburn fan living in Athens.”

AN ARTIST IS BORN IN ATHENS

For the rest of the ’80s and into the ’90s, James Dean was an electrical engineer, utterly and completely, pencils down, paints put away, driving from rural Georgia substation to rural Georgia substation, making good money. The dream was dead. Until it wasn’t.

He could not remember the professor’s name, but he still remembered what he had said. In a town like Athens, it was hard not to want to be an artist. It was small, but the place was becoming a little cultural mecca. Great bands. Art fairs. It finally got to him. In 1993, he got out the watercolors and acrylics.

He started drawing and painting the town, mostly the hip Georgia Theatre. He started painting country landscapes. He started showing his work. People liked it. They started buying it. He took the act on the road. New Orleans and Savannah. Those people started buying it, too.

Four years later, in 1997, he turned in his notice to Georgia Power and stopped getting haircuts.

“Everybody in my family thought I was crazy,” he says.

“I probably was.”

But he was an artist, finally, utterly and completely.

Then he adopted a cat.

Eagle drawn by James Dean
Georgia Theatre drawn by James Dean

THE TALES OF SLIM AND PETE

He laughs.

“I told you this was a long story,” he says. “I had a cat named Slim for years, and Slim passed away and that really bummed me out. I knew I couldn’t ever replace Slim, but I ended up getting this little cat at the shelter. He was tiny, starved, an ugly little cat, but he wanted to play, so I took him home and named him Pete. I don’t even know why.”

And who knows why Dean’s friend even suggested he paint a picture of Pete one day? Maybe because Pete would just sit in Dean’s lap while he painted. Whatever the reason, Dean was not feeling it.

“I told her I didn’t want to be a cat artist.”

Pete the Cat wearing a War Eagle sweater

Then he became a cat artist. He relented. And everyone lost it. It was 1999.

“It was pen-and-ink and I painted him blue since people might think a black cat was bad luck,” Dean says. “People went crazy over this first little five-minute painting I made of Pete.”

So he tried it again. And again. People could not get enough of Pete the cat. Pete driving a van. Pete walking Abbey Road with the Beatles. One writer described Pete as “a two-dimensional mascot of the local indie-art circuit.” He was all over town —first in Athens, then in Decatur, just outside Atlanta, which is where Dean moved in 2001, about a year after Pete, the three-dimensional Pete, went missing. Dean was torn up about it.

“I love cats,” Dean says, “but you can’t keep them forever.”

True, but if you start painting pictures of them and never stop, you can get pretty close.

Want to know the secret to success? The best advice former-electrical-engineer-turned-cat-artist James Dean can give is this: When you find something that connects with people, keep giving it to them. Be relentless. Paintings. T-shirts. Maybe a book.

People had been telling him he should do it for a while. Kids would love it, they said. A “Pete the Cat” book? That would sell.

One day, Dean and his wife, Kim, got out a notebook and gave it a go. Thirty minutes later, they were in the biggest fight of their marriage. They still talk about it. It is part of Pete the Cat lore. In sickness and health was no problem. In creative collaboration was another story. He pumped the proverbial brakes.

A couple of years — and a million passed-out James Dean, Cat Artist business cards — later, he pumped the literal brake.

It was a regular summer day in 2006. Dean was out cruising for paints and brushes in his 1965 Impala, newly customized with huge Pete the Cat stickers.

“I’d lost my mind at this point. I was all in,” Dean said.

The light turned red. He came to a stop right outside Manuel’s Tavern in Atlanta. “I look over, and there was this guy standing on the corner and he says, ‘Hey, you’re the Pete the Cat guy. I just recorded a song for you.’”

The guy was Eric Litwin, an educator well-known among Atlanta’s open-mic night aficionados for his penchant for penning children’s songs. His latest? A song about a girl with white shoes that he had finished recording not five minutes earlier. Only, on a whim, he had changed the lyrics — instead of a girl with white shoes accidentally stepping into a pile of strawberries, it was that cat character all over town created by the guy in the 1965 Impala suddenly right in front of him. Dean gave Eric his email address, and a partnership was born.

Dean and Litwin self-published and 7,000 copies of “Pete the Cat’s I Love My White Shoes” were gobbled up at art shows and festivals in less than a year.

Dean loves it when he finds someone who still has one of the original copies.

Fairhope Mayor Karen Wilson still has hers.

James Dean's cat Pete
the Manuel's Tavern Wall

THE CAT GOES NATIONWIDE

All 1991 Auburn graduate Karen Wilson wanted was some artwork for a project she was working on. She had seen a Pete the Cat poster somewhere, and she had pointed at it, and said ‘yes’—that was the aesthetic she needed. She contacted Dean and told him she owned a bookstore that had been in her family for, at that point, 40 years. That’s when it happened.

Wilson calls it “the dreaded conversation.” It’s when people send her a book to read after finding out she owns a bookstore, and it’s bad.

“Ninety-nine percent of people are going to bring you something that you’re not going to have time to read or that you’ll have to come up with something nice to say about because it’s simply not sellable,” Wilson said.

“After I went through engineering school, I had so much confidence in what I could do....I think I actually use a lot of the skills I learned at Auburn in this business, in being an artist.”

As soon as “I Love My White Shoes” arrived in the mail, it was obvious — James Dean was in the one percent.

“Writing a children’s book is an art that most people think they can do, but it’s very difficult,” Wilson said. “It’s harder than a novel, I think — harder than any other type of book — because the art is in the brevity, and yet it has to be enjoyable to the adult.”

“For me, it was one of the best kids’ books I’ve ever read,” Wilson says.

She called Dean back and began gushing. Dean remembers it well.

“She looked at my book and said, ‘I’m going to make you famous,’” he says.

Pete the Cat I Love My White Shoes; James Dean's first book

Last summer, Amazon announced a new animated original series called ‘Pete the Cat,’ based on the now more than 60 “Pete the Cat” books Dean has written and illustrated since HarperCollins Publishers signed him and Litwin to a two-book deal that included a new edition of “I Love My White Shoes” in 2010. Only four of those books were authored by Litwin; the dynamic duo parted professional ways in 2012. Dean kept going, enlisting Kim’s help along the way as coauthor.

LEO’S NEW LOVE

How many titles have made The New York Times’ Bestseller List? Thirty? Forty? Dean lost count.

Leonardo DiCaprio might know.

“I haven’t met him or anything, but he knows about the ‘Pete the Cat’ books,” Dean says. “He has them at his house and gives them to children and stuff.”

The DiCaprio connection started the latest chapter of the long, crazy story of Pete the Cat. Leo loved Pete. Leo told his manager about Pete. Leo’s manager called Dean. This was in 2015. Somehow, a producer for the long-running Disney cartoon “Phineas and Ferb” got looped into the conversation and agreed that Pete the Cat would make an excellent children’s show. It has.

The series, which features the music and voice of Elvis Costello, debuted to rave reviews last September and is gearing up for its second season.

Dean still pinches himself sometimes.

“God works in mysterious ways,” he says. “I’ve seen it over and over.”

Thank God he adopted that cat. Thank God he painted a picture of it. Thank God he stopped at that light. Thank God he had the courage to quit the job he went to school for — War Eagle.

“I tell people that after I went through engineering school, I had so much confidence in what I could do,” Dean says. “Everything in my life has been easy compared to engineering school. I think I actually use a lot of the skills I learned at Auburn in this business, in being an artist. Just the fact that I’m not afraid of numbers? That’s a huge thing in life. It’s hard. They put you through the ringer. But I don’t want to give the impression that I hated it.”

I click on the link one more time, just in case. It works. I start reading.

“So did they actually use the word ‘hate’?” he asks.

“Yep, looks like,” I respond.

He groans.

“I love Auburn.”