RICHMOND — When the gray cat appeared by Annabelle’s on Front Street, Barbara Bowley, the coffee shop’s co-owner, waved off the customers’ concern.

“I told them it was just a stray,” Bowley said.

No one who has seen the cat, named Swede, is likely to forget her. She’s gray, with lighter paws and face and yellow-green feline eyes.

Swede is also about three feet tall and clad in fiberglass. She’s been sighted in different locations throughout Richmond and as far away as Bath and Brunswick.

She goes wherever her sculptor, Douglas Chess — or Questionable Doug as he sometimes calls himself — takes her.

“I’m doing it for the town,” he said. “Just for the joy of it.”

If the goal of artists is to provoke a reaction, Chess has succeeded wildly with his cat. Swede gathers fans wherever she goes and this weekend she’s going to a parade. Chess will load her up on truck to be one of about two dozen floats that will take part in the 10 a.m. Richmond Days parade on Saturday. The annual summer celebration draws people from around the region to the riverfront town with food trucks, games, contests, road races, exhibits, music, fireworks and parades.

For Chess, it all comes back to the art.

That hasn’t changed from the years he spent in his rent-stabilized garret atop a building in Manhattan overlooking the Hudson River to his life now in Maine, which includes a studio overlooking the Kennebec River he built from the falling-down barn behind his home.

When he moved to New York from Long Island about four decades ago, it was to study drawing. He spent seven years at the Art Students League of New York, a nonprofit art school. Over time, his interest expanded to different media — wood cuts, painting, and now stained glass, mosaics and sculpture.

Swede is the product of about a year’s worth of work spread out over about five years. For a while, the practicalities of life intruded, and he picked up some work that would pay bills. But about a year ago, Chess was able set some of that work aside to give more time to his art and to get back to who he said he really is: an artist.

“You are more likely to be financially successful as a major league baseball player than you are as an artist,” he said. “It doesn’t matter.”

What matters is the art and the making of it.

The material the cat is made from is the same for his other sculpture work, cardboard and construction paper.

“I was carving stone, limestone and marble,” he said. “Every time you whacked the marble, a dollar fell off.”

That was, he said, financially unmanageable. So he arrived upon the mix of cardboard, construction paper, glue and wheat paste to make something solid.

“Once you get it solid, you can carve it,” he said.

Now he’s starting to add canvas to make the material stronger.

“Sculpture is a tactile thing. You want to touch it,” he said.

Swede is touchable, and children are fascinated by her.

When he dropped it off at an elementary school in Topsham, he said, “I caused a riot. The kids came off the bus and they were all over it. They were crazy for it.”

This is the third large sculpture that Chess has done like this. The first was a dog that’s now in a children’s hospital in Florida. The second is a fish that’s currently in the home he shares with Ruth, his wife and their cats, Swede — the inspiration for the artwork — and Napoleon, and art by both of them. The fish has hung in the Isaac F. Umberhine Library, where some of his paintings are hanging, and in the town’s gazebo, where he and Ruth were married.

The cat is the first one that has incorporated fiberglass. He built it in three parts in his studio, and lowered it to the garage for assembly. It’s not solid because he knew he would want to move it, but it’s heavy enough that Chess uses a “come-along” to shift it on the trailer he uses to cart her around. Just as often, a passerby stops to help.

Not all of his sculptures are that large. Throughout his home, filled with art by both him and Ruth, are a series of Mardi Gras heads, elaborate oversize sculpted masks that completely cover the wearer’s head and rests on the shoulders. He wears the chef’s head with an apron to the annual chili cook-off at The Old Goat restaurant in Richmond, and he made a tour guide head that he wore during a stint as a guide.

While he lived in New York, he had gallery exhibits and helped manage a gallery. That gave him a chance to see to how people interact with art.

In the context of a gallery, people could see the most outrageous thing and not be visibly moved.

With Swede, it’s an entirely different experience. He invites people to take selfies of it and email them to him. They do, generally with compliments on the work.

“I take this cat and put it out there and everyone gets to see it and enjoy it,” he said. “And I get the reactions and that’s the joy of it.”

Jessica Lowell — 621-5632

[email protected]

Twitter: @JLowellKJ

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