MINNEAPOLIS -- If you haven't made it down to the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for the China's Terracotta Warriors exhibit that ends at 5 p.m. today, there's still one more week to see a complementary installation.

Or at least a send-up of it.

"It started with a pun," Duluth born-and-raised artist Denise Rouleau said of her exhibit, "Terra 'Gatto' Warriors -- Unleash the Cats" at the Douglas Flanders Gallery in Minneapolis through Feb. 2.

"Gatto" is "cat" in Italian, which Rouleau picked up after living in Italy following her 1989 Denfeld High graduation. The play on words is "cat-acombs" -- burial chambers she visited in Europe while nurturing a fascination for the mummies of ancient Egypt, where cats were deified. She also was intrigued by a story of a cat army ridding the land of invaders.

Throw into that mix the unearthing of 7,000 terracotta soldiers buried in China 2,300 years ago to guard the tomb of Qin Shihuang, or First Emperor, and you can see where this is going.

But it didn't start out as parody, and Rouleau says she hadn't seen the terracotta warriors until Friday, just before the closing of their rare exhibit outside of China. And puns aside, her initial cat pieces were deadly serious.

"The original show was called 'The Mummy Paradox,' " Rouleau, now of Minneapolis, said of her 2009-10 exhibition at the Bloomington Art Center with studio partner Mark Roberts. "It was a morbid curiosity, asking, 'How there can be beauty in decay?' "

The grouping of cats also questioned why people respond differently to tragic events depending on their magnitude, such as the compassion for a baby falling into a well versus indifference to genocide in Rwanda.

Qin's massive army of clay defies that, forcing viewers to pay attention to the individualized faces and uniforms of each soldier. Equally distinct are the cats crafted by Rouleau, whose eye for detail may come from her mother, Pam, a miniaturist and jewelry designer still residing in the Denfeld area.

"They're all sculpted individually," said Rouleau, adding she's never had a cat (her Plott Hound, Zooey, beckoned for a walk during our conversation) and designed them with no particular feline in mind.

"One woman made a blog and put a picture of one of the cat soldiers on it and a picture of her cat that looked remarkably the same," she said. "People have come in and said, 'I found my cat over here.' "

Or grew attached to them in other ways.

"Some of the children have wanted to give names to the cat warriors," said gallery owner Doug Flanders, who has previously exhibited Northland artists Craig Blacklock and the late George Morrison.

The cat show has sparked some confusion, however.

"I've had people ask, 'Do you only sell antiques?' " he said of those mistaking the cat mummies for genuine.

If Rouleau's cats have journeyed from morbidity to whimsy, that moment came when she mounted the Bloomington exhibit, which needed something else, and ...

"I put a mouse there," she said, "and it said it all. It completely changed it but it didn't contradict it. It doesn't have to be serious."

So what do the folks at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts think about a knock-off in the neighborhood?

"We put it on our Facebook page to share with all of our followers because we thought it was a lot of fun," said Katie Hill, the museum's audience engagement specialist.

I think that means Flanders and Rouleau are safe from a cease-and-desist order.

"Yeah. Hopefully the intellectual property is up on that," said Rouleau, who adds she hadn't realized the terracotta soldiers were in town until the museum exhibit was mounted, and knew it was time to mobilize her cat army.

"I said, 'It's just too perfect. We gotta get these guys out again.' "

I think she means "gatto" get them out. And she did.

If you go

What: "Terra 'Gatto' Warriors -- Unleash the Cats"

When: Through Feb. 2.

Where: Douglas Flanders Fine Arts Gallery, 910 W. Lake St., Minneapolis.

Cost: Free.

Contact: (651) 213-2662.

Online: www.flandersart.com





What: China's Terracotta Warriors

When: Closes 5 p.m. today.

Where: Minneapolis Institute of Arts, 2400 Third Ave. S., Minneapolis.

Cost: $20 adults, $16 children.

Contact: (888) 642-2787. Advance registration strongly encouraged.

Online: www.artsmia.org/terracotta-warriors

Robin Washington is editor of the News Tribune. He may be reached at rwashington@duluthnews.com.