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Select Works of Noted Dupont Circle Sculptor John Cavanaugh Featured in Outdoor Display

Accompanying images can be viewed on page 1 of the September issue 2017 issue pdf

By Gordon J. Alt*

The installation of the Cavanaugh Sculpture Garden on the grounds of the Women’s National Democratic Club at Q Street and New Hampshire Avenue, NW features four female sculptures by Washington artist John Cavanaugh (1921–1985). It extends an already important collection of his sculpture in Washington, particularly in this DuPont Circle neighborhood, where he was active and very visible in his studio at 1818 18th Street, NW.

The Cavanaugh Sculpture Garden is an important addition to Dupont Circle, and Cavanaugh’s legacy to this neighborhood. The garden came about with the coordination and support of the Women’s National Democratic Club, <>the Policy Studies Organization across from the Club’s headquarters on New Hampshire Avenue, and the John Cavanaugh Foundation.

The District’s Historic Preservation Office and the City Council unanimously supported this effort and all applauded the importance of the project. A local civic leader once referred to Cavanaugh as the “Mayor of DuPont Circle’ and in a way, while he was active here, he might have been.

In a March 2006 article published in the “Not for Tourists” blog, John Petro expressed his amazement at his discovery of the Cavanaugh reliefs in the Dupont Circle neighborhood and noted, “As I learned Cavanaugh’s story, I was amazed at how much his life typified the city and the neighborhood which he lived.”

The four figures installed in the Cavanaugh Sculpture Garden along the Q Street side of the Club’s building represent four periods in the lives of women.

The first, The Trip, is of a young girl astride a hog gliding through the air. It is one of the most popular of his sculptures and one of the earliest to successfully add a sense of motion to his work. The Trip was selected by the USID Diplomats in the Arts Program that selects works of art to be displayed in U.S. embassies around the world, and it was on loan for many years traveling to several countries. In 1998 it was selected to be included in the 2005 “Fifty Important American Figurative Sculptors” exhibition at the Fleischer Museum of Art in Scottsdale, Arizona. In his retrospective in Columbus Ohio in 2005, critic Jorden Gentile noted, ”The graceful way Cavanaugh renders the animal, it might as well be a unicorn carrying his precious cargo from cloud to cloud.”

The next sculpture, Pas de Trios is of three young ballet dancers swirling together. It is one of his favorite subjects and he created over eight versions of this image. These he developed during his late period where moment was important to his themes. Another copy of this work is permanently installed in the Brookgreen Garden Sculpture Collection in South Carolina, the largest exhibition of permanent 19th and 20 century sculpture in the United States.

Alice is the third female sculpture and represents middle age.  Cavanaugh refereed to this work as his colossal head, and it is the reposing head of Alice B. Toklas in her hat. She was the companion of Gertrude Stein. Cavanaugh liked Stein’s work and visited sites related to the arts period that was famous during Stein’s history in Paris during a trip to Europe.

The fourth statue, Standing Female, represents the strong older female figures throughout Cavanaugh’s life. This particular image is very much like early photographs of his mother. Cavanaugh’s father had died of suicide when he and his four brothers were young. His mother kept that family together and represented a strong figure in Cavanaugh’s early life. When he was still in high school, his mother, recognizing his talent for art, took him to live with Alice Archer Sewall James, who was an important leader of the Urbana Movement in Ohio. He lived with her almost like a son, and she introduced him to the arts and allowed him to take art classes at the Urbana University and grounded him as an artist. Throughout his life, Cavanaugh would periodically create an image of a strong female figure in his sculpture, as several women played an important part in his career.

While not in the sculpture garden, there is an important fifth female sculpture of Cavanaugh’s on display in the entry hall of the Women’s National Democratic Club. It is a hammered lead sculpture of former firebrand New York City Congresswoman Bela Abzug, who represented an especially liberal district in Manhattan, New York City. She was a leading environmentalist and early supporter of civil rights, women’s rights and gay rights throughout her career.

John Cavanaugh came to Washington in the mid-1960s after a career in his home state of Ohio where, following graduation from Ohio State University, he was a successful ceramic sculptor.

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.

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.

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.

Copyright © 2017 InTowner Publishing Corp. and the John Cavanaugh Foundation. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part without permission is prohibited, except as provided by 17 U.S.C. §107.