LISTEN: Memories of Lost Cat, Gavin Mahoney

The Ithaca artist known as Lost Cat died in April. His name was Gavin Mahoney and he was 55. Mahoney was best known for the many stick cat figures he painted around the city. Shortly after his death friends, admirers, and fellow artists put on a memorial art exhibition. And in July, a sculpture was installed downtown in his memory. I spoke with a few of his friends at both events. Here’s some of what they said about Mahoney’s life and how they will remember him.

Earlier this summer, the Gallery at Arthhaus on Cherry Street was buzzing with activity. Dozens of people gathered for the opening of an exhibit to honor Gavin Mahoney. Lost Cat images by Mahoney, and works by about a dozen other artists were on display. They included angels by one of his closest friends, Tony Sidle.

"The more I looked into the Lost Cat and asked him questions and stuff, the more I saw the genius in it because it's such a simple little thing," Sidle said.

Sidle and Mahoney met in the 90s when they shared an apartment. They stayed close friends until Mahoney’s death from an overdose this April. Sidle continued talking about what made Lost Cat images special to him.

"We're in a city called Ithaca, which in The Odyssey is the Island of Lost Souls. And a lot of people are transient, who come to Ithaca, through schooling or travel. Now it is known as one of the better places to live for those who work from home. And so you have a lot of people that have landed here that are kind of lost and alone and the Lost Cat...people identify as a lost cat, especially here in Ithaca," he said.

Mahoney was a kayaker and he worked at Puddledockers on Cayuga Inlet for several years. Sidle and others said he chose to live in The Jungle. It is a homeless encampment in Ithaca’s West End.

A Lost Cat image by Gavin Mahoney on display in Kirstin Dutcher's hair salon, July 2023. (Celia Clarke/WRFI)

"When he first started doing Lost Cat, Gavin chose to move into The Jungle. He opted out of [renting] an apartment and build[ing] somebody else's equity. He wanted his own space, but not [in]the frame of society. The Jungle offered a close-by relief from society so that he could remain working," Sidle said.

You can see Lost Cats all over Ithaca in different sizes and poses. Sidle said Mahoney created his own language with drawings.

"So, he would use like a hobo language. He would have the ears point in a direction and if you kept following them eventually you’d come across a huge one somewhere. And he’d use the eyes to communicate a safe place to get high, safe place to sleep to eat. But he also showed cool, hidden treasures around Ithaca," he said. 

A Lost Cat image by Gavin Mahoney on the back of a large piece of carpeting on display in Kirstin Dutcher's salon. (Celia Clarke/WRFI)

Sidle and others said Mahoney would anonymously give his art away. Kirstin Dutcher is the owner of Hair Color Art, a salon in Press Bay Court in Ithaca. She’s also a visual artist. That’s how she and Mahoney became friends.

"You know, he just kept coming more and more often. And then every time he came in here, he always brought something or left something. So I have like little like trinkets and little lost cat pieces and stuff like that all over the place," Dutcher said.

Caleb Thomas heads Ithaca Murals. It’s a public art project in the city. He met Mahoney after getting a lost cat drawing anonymously. It was the first of many gifts from Mahoney.

"He was an artist on the rise, and I'm angry that he's not here. I'm angry about addiction. I'm angry that I'm angry that we didn't do enough that we aren't enough as a community to hold him to that we have any that anyone dies from addiction that anyone dies of poor life choices," he said.

Thomas said Ithaca lost more than an artist when Mahoney died.

"The Jungle grew significantly in population during pandemic. And because he'd been there for a long time, I guess, he knew, he was able to hold the space and, and to help people that were having a hard time, you know, whether it's through addiction, poverty, or just – Yeah, he was a big helper over there, big support. He was part of the support network. And he did that, you know, community-wide, outside of the jungle, too," Thomas said.

Friends of Gavin Mahoney gather around the Lost Cat statue in his honor in Press Bay Court Tony Sidle (kneeling second from right) and blacksmith Teo Aceto (kneeling far right). Photo: Celia Clarke/WRFI

In July, a statue was unveiled in honor of Mahoney and Lost Cat. It’s a cat about 6 feet. tall. Its ears point in opposite directions and the body is made of the words “Lost Cat.” You can see it in Press Bay Court along Green Street. Blacksmith Teo Aceto made the statue. Sidle organized the fundraising effort to make it happen.

"I think he would be really proud of the statue because he was really proud of the Lost Cat," Sidle said.