Oct 1, 2014

Sculptor Profile :: John Cavanaugh

Tell us about the John Cavanaugh Foundation and your involvement in it

The Cavanaugh Foundation was founded in 1986, in memory of the figurative sculptor John Cavanaugh, by a group of friends and collectors. Cavanaugh was a Fellow of NSS and had been so prolific that they were concerned about the large body of work he had left in his studio and wanted to protect it. In 1987, as Chair of Exhibits of the Arts Club of Washington, I heard of these holdings and contacted the Director to form an exhibit. Aware of its importance, I continued to exhibit his work over the next few years, including two exhibits in New York. The board asked me to become Curator of the Collection, and in 2000, when I had more time, I became the Executive Director. I have been able to exhibit his work in museums across the country, often at two museums a year.

Cavanaugh created a lot of work in bronze, ceramic and formed wax. However, he is particularly known for his hammered lead works. Why is that?

Cavanaugh truly revolutionized hammered lead sculpture and successfully took it to heights no other sculptor has been able to match. After reviewing his solo exhibit in New York City in 1996, American Artist Magazine called him "the Master of Hammered Lead" and covered his creative and technological genius in two consecutive issues. Other sculptors have worked in hammered lead, including Jose DeCreeft, Saul Baizerman and Dorothea Greenbaum, who called Cavanaugh's work in lead the true "tour de force." After he discovered a unique way of handling this often-times difficult material, Cavaanaugh continued to perfect his control of lead and exploration of subjects through the 1970's to the development of his most successful dancers in the 1980's, right before his untimely death in 1985.

Other sculptors who attempted hammered lead could only take it to a stage of high relief. Cavanaugh was able to shape and expad his sculpture fully in the round; a stunning achievement considering several of the pieces are life-sized. In the process of working in hammered lead, most sculptors find it difficult to control the material because of its low melting point. The hammering creates enough friction and heat that the metal actually beings to "flow" and stretch, often causing excessive thinning and holes in the lead. Thus, most sculptors who worked in lead were usually restricted to relief sculpture. Cavanaugh discovered that by using a variety of tools and several techniques, including reversing the traditional repousse method of hammering metal, he could create a wide range of subjects. These direct techniques heightened the experience for the viewers, who could see the subtle and sometimes sensual effect on the surface of his work. This skill and his creative approach of rendering his sculpture provided a unique range of effects in his work, as well as an intimate visual experience.

Why do you think John Cavanaugh's work is historically important?

Direct sculpture techniques are being lost today as young artists turn to new materials and ways of developing the finished sculpture. However, the rich heritage of direct technique can never be duplicated in these modern methods, especially in the handling of wood, stone or in metal sculpture. His efforts in creating his hammered lead pieces are unique, and the continuous evolution that brought his work to a very high level can probably never be repeated. Not only is the awareness of his technique important, but the way he continued to evolve it to a higher level in his lifetime is valuable to both the future and history of 20th Century sculpture.

Tragically, Cavanaugh died in January 1985 at just 63 years of age. His early death was partially due to his working with lead. Like other direct metal artists during this period, he did not think to protect himself, even though the work was vigorous and demanding. Only a handful of sculptors today do any work in lead. But awareness today, both in the media and in art schools, is confirmed on younger artists. They are encouraged to be more concerned, something the John Cavanaugh Foundation website continues to discuss.

Tell us a little bit about your background

Because of my interests and broad educational background, I have been able to become involved in many roles and careers. I was a College Dean and later University Professor in Chicago, before I came to Washington in 1980 to become a Museum Director for the National Trust for Historic Preservation. In the mid 80s, I became the Vice President for the American Institute of Architects Foundation and the AIA Group Executive for Public Outreach. After leaving in 1990, I worked with tow professionals for David Rockfeller, Sr. to develop the public programs for the J.D. Rockfeller Estate and art collections. I became the East Coast Editor for the New Art Examiner and later the Director of the International Forum for Art and Architecture. It was during this period that I consulted in different venues and in different capacities for the Attaches or Ministers of Culture of Turkey, Finland, Belgium and the Czech Republic.

Is it true you used to work for the White House?

Yes. During my period at the AIA, I had been asked by the Chief of Protocol, Selwa Roosevelt, to review aspects of the Blair House renovation with her. I also worked with Mrs. Bush and her staff to host intimate luncheons and tours for the spouses of visiting Heads of State. The Octagon, which is an important historic house and was owned by the AIA, has a unique historic kitchen and this provided a special setting.

Later, during the Clinton years, the Office of Protocol contacted me to ask if I would work with the Clintons to select works by American artists as their gifts to visiting Heads of State. It was a tradition started by President Kennedy that Clinton greatly admired. So, for example, I selected a photograph by Richard Cristler for the Prime Minister of Japan, as I had learned he was an avid photographer. I usually asked the staff for background interests of the visitors, as Mrs. Clinton became very involved in the selections. President Chirac of France received Cavanaugh's Pas de Trois, when he came for the Dayton Peach Accords Meeting, and each visitor received something that often addressed their personal interests or collections. This was a wonderful opportunity to highlight American art.

What kind of parallels do you see between the John Cavanaugh Foundation and National Sculpture Society

There are many parallels between NSS and The John Cavanaugh Foundation. The Foundation is primarily involved with extending awareness of Cavanaugh's work nationally. In a larger scale, NSS is also primarily involved with promoting sculpture, particularly its members. Both organizations accomplish this nationally through exhibitions, education, programs, research, awards and scholarships. Like NSS, the Foundation is interested in bringing sculpture to a broader audience, as well as protecting its historical collections, records and achievements.

For more information about The John Cavanaugh Foundation, visit its website