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Sculpture Garden ~ continued from September 2017 issue, page 3

Sculpture Garden ~ continued from September 2017 issue, page 3

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In 1957 he moved to New York City where he continued to work in ceramic and bronze and successfully explored and mastered the difficult technique of hammered lead sculpture. Because he was firing up the kilns at the well-known Sculpture Center, back then in Manhattan and now across the East River in Long Island City, he was able to have free studio space to use.

The Sculpture Center was founded by artist and activist Dorothea Denslow who wanted a space where both professional and amateur sculptors could work together with the equipment necessary for them to succeed. It was here that Cavanaugh was exposed to new and advanced techniques. It was also a place he successfully was able to exhibit his work in an important Manhattan location.

Even though he was receiving positive critical review in the New York Times and the Herald Tribune for his work, especially his evolving hammered lead pieces, he moved to Washington in late 1963 to join his partner, architect Philip Froeder. Although he continued to exhibit his work at the Sculpture Center in New York through the 1970s, in Washington he was able to find larger and more affordable space in order to retain a working studio. He also developed opportunities to have exhibitions in his studio as well as in his residence, sometimes on a bi-annual basis.

His last studio space was a glass store front, which offered him a chance to meet curious neighbors and passersby and to invite them in to see his activities and work. And it also offered him an opportunity to invite them to his bi-annual exhibitions. As he hated galleries because he felt they charged too much commission, he developed a way for local collectors of his work to put a down payment on a piece and pay for it over 10 installments, oftentimes while they enjoyed the piece in their homes.

In order to maintain an income as well as his active interest in the neighborhood, he and his partner began to purchase vacant row houses in the, back then, dilapidated Dupont Circle neighborhood. Since no banks would offer any loans to the neighborhood, they saved what they could and borrowed money from family and friends and started to restore the buildings and rehab small apartments and studios to meet the growing need for the younger professions moving into the improving area.

In 1978 the Washington Evening Star featured Cavanaugh and Froeder in its entire Sunday color supplement headlined “The Preservationists of Swann Street,” highlighting their important rehab and restoration. The section focused on  the creative and contemporary renovations they undertook, and applauded them as being some of the early and important contributors in improving the Dupont Circle community and neighborhood.

photo--courtesy John Cavanaugh Foundation

photo–courtesy John Cavanaugh Foundation

Cavanaugh acted as the foreman and it was during the early phase of their rehabilitation projects that he decided to permanently attach his relief sculpture on some of the buildings. On the building highlighted in the Star’s supplement, 1801–‘03 Swann Street, NW, he created several panels based on Marcel Proust’s novel Swann’s Way. For many years Cavanaugh and Froeder continued their successful projects and Cavanaugh continued to create successful sculpture.

Cavanaugh’s sculpture is nationally recognized and admired. His work has been exhibited widely in galleries and museums, and he has permanent installations of his sculpture in several states. Cavanaugh was a prolific sculptor and he continued to work until the last months of his life. When the materials like lead became too heavy for him to work, he invented a wax process which made it possible to form works directly from the malleable wax sheets he created. His formula is kept in the National Sculpture Society’s archives, He created hundreds of pieces in lead alone.

Some Cavanaugh’s works are life-size. No one achieved what he was able to create in lead, and at the time of his 1996 retrospective at the National Sculpture Society Gallery in New York City, a critic from the American Artist Magazine called him the “Master of Hammered Lead.”

He worked in many styles in ceramic, terracotta, bronze, hammered lead and wax. He was successful in all these media. He also pursued many subjects in his work. Creating whole exhibitions of charming and humorous children, of horses and cats; however, his most successful subject was the female figure. Even by his own admission in his autobiographical notes, he felt the female form was his most important work.

"Standing Female" photo--Kathy Ma.

“Standing Female” photo–Kathy Ma.

In the late 1970s he became fascinated with the idea of movement in his figures, rather than static poses. He began to attend dance performances, especially at the Kennedy Center and study books on ballet. After an initial exhibit of dance figures in 1977, mostly lead, which he was not fully satisfied, he feverishly completed a second exhibit which he felt truly achieved his ability to add a sense of motion in his work, and he continued to concentrate on creating robed figures and dancers as his primary subject.

*The writer is Executive Director of The John Cavanaugh Foundation. He also serves as Vice President of the National Sculpture Society, and is a Member of Editorial Board of Sculpture Review Magazine.

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