The Dead Cat Museum
How an island boy’s curious business came to be immortalized by painter Jamie Wyeth.
By Diane Sternberg Photo by Amy Toensing
“I actually did have a dead cat museum, but I called it a mummified cat museum because, really, who would be trying to sell views of dead cats? That is just disgusting,” Kyle Murdock says, laughing gently. We are looking at a reproduction of Dead Cat Museum, painted by Jamie Wyeth in 1999. Kyle, age ten, is the subject. “It’s all about the model, by the way. It has nothing to do with the artist,” Kyle adds with a smile.
In the painting, young Kyle is standing with his back to a window outside of his childhood house on Monhegan Island, off the coast of Maine. He is wearing a white-collared shirt with a brown necktie, a black cape, and no shoes. His shorts are the same color as the cedar-shingled house behind him: deep gray with hints of olive green and blue. He is pointing to a homemade plywood sign, which reads: “Kyle’s Dead Cat Museum. See the Cats 50 Cents, Lemonade 10 Cents. Nintendo (no accessories) $10-20.” His small body casts a shadow onto the sliver of door to his right. To Kyle’s left, a light blue sky contrasts with the earth tones used to illustrate him and his house. An American flag flies from the rooftop of the Island Inn in the distance, and nine colorful tourists are walking beside red flowering bushes on a path that winds away from his house.
“I was always an entrepreneur, that’s for sure,” Kyle, now twenty-two, tells me. We are sitting at the kitchen table in the house he lives in with his parents in Tenants Harbor, a town twelve miles across the water from Monhegan on the mainland. His cat, Socrates, meows insistently. Kyle looks at Soc and says, “You’re just upset because nobody is paying attention to you.” Soc rubs his back against the leg of the table.
We talk about the origin of Kyle’s unusual childhood business. “Do you know about the bog man?” Kyle asks. I shake my head, and he continues. “You know, the guy they found in South America, the explorer who fell in the bog and his body was preserved? Well, I had cats that were like the bog man. They had been naturally petrified from the soil conditions. I found them when men were insulating under my Aunt Katie’s house on Monhegan. Digging up the earth, they came out with these cats.”
From across the room, Kyle’s mother, Winnie, chimes in. “It was this huge pile of dirt and dead cats.”
“Yeah,” Kyle continues. “I dug through it and I found three good ones.”
“He’s on the pile in the mud, digging through and going ‘Eeeew, that’s disgusting. Well, that one’s not so bad.’ ” Winnie laughs as she remembers.
It was Kyle’s uncle who initially came up with the idea to turn the cats into an opportunity. “My uncle told me I should charge tourists money to see them. He thought I’d make a killing. I had a chalk sign in the beginning: ‘Mummified cats and lemonade stand,’ ” it said.
Did he sell more cat views or lemonade? “Cats,” he says. “They were too queasy after the cat views to want lemonade.”
Kyle explains how he would solicit his customers. “We lived in the center of town,” he recalls. “Everyone coming off the ferry had to walk by. The house was next to the town’s two lunch spots and the general store. Even the wait staff at the restaurant would send customers to see the little kid with dead cats.” Kyle laid the cats in a Pepperidge Farm box that said, “Broken cookies means lost sales.” Every summer he’d entice more visitors. “I was quite the salesman, a real hustler. I remember one day, I was probably six or seven, and I made eighty dollars selling views of the cats.”
“He would make hundreds of dollars every summer,” Winnie interjects.
Both tourists and artists are drawn to Monhegan’s rugged coast. Jamie Wyeth purchased property in Lobster Cove in the 1960s, and has been painting the island’s landscape and local people ever since. I ask Kyle how being the subject of a Wyeth painting influenced his childhood. “There were kids around me that I grew up with who were painted by Jamie Wyeth,” he says, “so it didn’t seem like a big deal to me. It wasn’t until I grew up and moved away from the island that I realized a lot of things I experienced growing up were not what anybody else would ever consider normal.”
And does the child captured in the painting represent the person he has become now? “Not too much about me has changed,” Kyle says. “I’ve refined certain points of my personality. I’ve become more scientific, analytical, and careful.” Reflecting on his past, Kyle points out that he was raised in a family of lobstermen. Island life, by nature, promotes working together to form a community. The local fishermen watched him grow up, and he learned about working hard as he watched their boats pull out before sunrise to haul traps.
In 2008, when the price of lobster crashed, Kyle started questioning why trucks full of Maine lobster were being shipped to Canada for processing. It didn’t make sense to him that another country controlled the market. Maine lobster is a brand, and the demand for it is high. Processing lobster locally would cut down on shipping and fuel costs, he reasoned. And so Kyle started creating a business plan in his spare time between college classes. “Most people move into lobster processing by securing a supply for markets they already have. I was approaching it from the other end, trying to find markets for the supply that was there.” Kyle learned from his father that a former mussel farm was for sale in Tenants Harbor. “I put in an offer on the property and when it was accepted, I decided to drop out of school and work full time to make this happen.”
Kyle hit some hurdles along the way due to his youth and lack of capital, but in late July he opened Sea Hag Seafood, which he hopes to build into a successful company. “I’d like to be able to contribute something to Maine, rather than taking what it contributed to me and going somewhere else,” he says, and in his dark eyes I see the same energetic ambition that attracted an artist’s interest more than a decade ago on Monhegan, along with a glimmer of pride.
Diane Sternberg is a freelance writer and a sailing instructor at the Hurricane Island Outward Bound School. She met Kyle Murdock through her studies at the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies in Portland.