By Steven Kreytak
Tuesday, September 19, 2006
Almost six months after she sneaked onto an Austin-bound flight to attend the South by Southwest Music Festival, noted artist Catherine "Cat" Chow was required to check in last week with federal officials in New York, where she is currently working.
The officials thought it would be a routine meeting to ensure that Chow, 33, hadn't violated the terms of her release on bond. Chow thought it would be a good time to pilfer materials for her next project.
Catherine 'Cat' Chow admitted making 'a really bad, impulsive decision' when she stowed away aboard a flight to Austin in March. 'I never thought the consequences would be anything like this.'
At her sentencing in Austin on Monday for stowing away on an aircraft, Chow told U.S. Magistrate Judge Robert Pitman that she took signs and a clipboard from the U.S. pretrial services waiting room for a future art project. When questioned about the items Friday, she gave them back, Chow said.
An incredulous Pitman sentenced Chow to two years of probation and 200 hours of community service, but not before questioning her common sense.
"You steal something from a pretrial services office?" Pitman asked.
"I am not in the habit of breaking the law. I want you to believe that I am a very smart, law-abiding citizen," Chow said.
"Well," Pitman said, "you're not."
Chow is known for creating clothing, which she exhibits as sculpture, out of nontraditional materials. One piece, "Not for Sale," is a dress constructed of 1,000 $1 bills.
She is from Chicago but is living and working temporarily in New York. From there, she was supposed to meet friends in Austin in March for South by Southwest.
After Chow missed her original flight, she was booked the next day to fly standby, meaning she would get a seat only if other passengers didn't show up.
She got on a flight to St. Louis but learned there that the connecting flight to Austin was full. Desperate to meet her friends, she later told FBI agents, she sneaked past gate agents and onto the plane.
Chow spent about half the flight in the tiny bathroom of a 50-passenger jet operated by Trans States Airlines for American Airlines.
When other passengers knocked, she left the bathroom for the main cabin, but because there were no unoccupied seats, she was eventually noticed by a flight attendant.
Airport police were waiting for her in Austin.
Chow pleaded guilty to the federal misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in prison, in June.
Misdemeanor state cases in which she is charged with possessing 4.2 grams of marijuana and six tablets of Cipralex, a common antidepressant, are pending.
"I know I made a really bad, impulsive decision," Chow said in court Monday. "I never thought the consequences would be anything like this."
Chow's lawyer, Samuel Bassett, noted in a sentencing memorandum that several friends and colleagues have sent letters to the court praising her artistic talent and character, including one who said Chow could teach at a university but instead instructs "at-risk Latino and African-American youth about the arts."
Pitman took note of those credentials Monday.
"It is remarkable to me, in looking at your background and looking at the interesting and worthwhile things you have done, that you have acted so foolishly," he said.
"Artists often don't see the world the way other people do, and that is often to our benefit," Pitman said. "But artists have to obey rules, too."
Chow was not charged for taking the items in New York, Bassett said.
Chow never got to see any music at South by Southwest. She spent five days in the Travis County Jail before she was bailed out. The timing of her sentencing gave her a second chance to see a major music event in Austin, but she said she flew in Monday morning, too late to catch any of the Austin City Limits Music Festival.