John Cavanaugh — Recent Press


Nationally renowned artist - and Sycamore native - captured "the weightless qualities of motion" in lead.

BY DAN REINHART - Champaign County - Mohawk Leader - Feature Article - March 9, 2005

Critics say that the nationally acclaimed artist John Cavanaugh was able to "capture the weightless qualities of motion in the ponderous medium of lead."

Growing up in Sycamore and graduating from Ohio State University, the late artist turned the tumultuous experiences of his life into a passion for innovative and imaginative art.

The one-time teacher at the Smithsonian Institute left a treasury of work that is on display in museums and private collections across the country. An exhibit featuring the hammered lead and bronze sculptures of Cavanaugh will be presented at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center through April 17.

Although the art world uses terms like "revolutionary" and "master of his medium" to describe John Cavanaugh, Upper Sandusky's Phil Cavanaugh remembers his brother as a free spirit with endless enthusiasm. "He was a lot of fun," Phil said.

Growing up in Sycamore.

John Cavanaugh was born in Sycamore in 1921 to C. Lloyd and Hilda (Stein) Cavanaugh. The Cavanaugh's had four sons, John, Dale, Stanley (known as Bud), and Philip, who now resides in Upper Sandusky. Lloyd worked as a ticket agent and telegrapher for the railroad ad the boys were brought up in a devout religious environment. The family lived in the first house south of United Church of Christ in Sycamore.

As the Great Depression began to take it toll, Lloyd apparently became increasingly concerned about the financial welfare of this family and eventually committed suicide, thinking he could help them out with his insurance money. John was eight years old at the time.

Hilda, who Cavanaugh biographer Maren Stange described as a "strong, determined woman," worked hard to support the boys who also labored at whatever jobs they could find to help the famliy.

After Lloyd died Hilda married his brother, Maurice (Shorty) Cavanaugh. It has been said that Cavanaugh's mother presented a strong female figure, something John sought repeatedly throughout his life and in his work. Likewise, Cavanaugh's religious upbringing was also a theme that resurfaced in his art.


Even at an early age John's artistic talent was apparent in drawings he made. Phil said John would often include sketching as part of his normal childhood fun. Hilda recognized and encouraged John's talent. According to Phil, Hilda got and inheritance check each month of $25 and she would put it toward furthering John's education in art because she knew he was gifted.

Since Sycamore didn't offer art classes, John's mother sent him to the Ursulan convent in Tiffin for lessons. Cavanaugh biographer Stange quoted him as calling the trips to the convent a "horrible experience" but the experience at least showed his mother's support for his talent. Hilda was so supportive, in fact, that in 1939 she permitted him to design the house she and Shorty built on N. Warpole Street, just south of the Village Restaurant in Upper Sandusky. The house can be seen there today.

The driving lesson.

Phil says his big brother (John was five years older) was definitely talented but he could als be quite impulsive. He recalled one time when Hilda was going to teach John to drive. The three of them got into their 1934 Chevy. John the driver, Hilda the passenger and Phil sat in the back. Hilda instructed John to push in the clutch, put the car in gear, then let out the clutch.

Phil remembers the trio peering anxiously through the windshield while John proceeded to follow his mother's instructions. He pushed in the clutch, put the car in gear, popped the clutch and the car lurched into motion. Backwards. When he got the car stopped John simply shut it off, got out, and never stepped behind the wheel of a car again. Ever. He walked.

"Tremendous spirit of pure fire."

About 1938 Hilda sent John to Urbana to finish high school under the direction of Alice Archer Sewall James, a minister's daughter and an art teacher at the college. James later became the leader of the Urbana Movement, a group 'dedicated to using their talents to foster spiritual growth.' (Known as Swedenborgian, the Urbana congregation followed the teachings of 18th-century scientist, philosopher and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who envisioned a new form of Christianity.) Cavanaugh would later say that he "got more of Swedenborg than needed."

At Urbana Cavanaugh studied Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare, Greek drama, and the letters of Thomas More. Although the congregation at Urbana advocated divine guidance, Bible study and prayer, it also stressed freedom, diversity and individualism. James said she saw in Cavanaugh a "tremendous spirit of pure fire."

In 1942, after Cavanaugh studied with James for nearly five years, she gave him $100 and told him to go to college. He enrolled at Ohio State University. He stayed at the Buckeye Scholarship Dorm, a dorm reserved for exceptional students with small bank accounts.

Being well-trained and talented, Cavanaugh was allowed to skip introductory art courses and enroll in advanced sculpture classes. By 1944 he made one of his first entries (the oil painting, "Trees") in the Columbus Art League's annual exhibition, which won him the Louise Shepard Hengst Memorial Prize for a work that was "least imitative in concept and execution." In 1945 he graduated with a bachelor of fine arts degree in sculpture after only three years of college.

Uncertain times.

In February 1946 John married Janet Cornuelle, a well-to-do fellow Ohio State student. Phil's wife Ruth said that Janet was also an accomplished artist and the couple has a statuette that Janet made from cornhusks. John and his new wife moved to Boston where John continued to study under the direction of Rev. Franklin Blackmer, a former president of Urbana College.

Janet gave birth to the couple's first son but the child was born deformed from hydrocephalus and died at the hospital. John became disillusioned and the couple soon moved to Iowa City where he took graduate courses in engraving and sculpture. In 1949 Janet gave birth to another son, Jon, who currently lives in Westerville.

While wrestling with a host of physical and emotional problems, John and his family moved back to Columbus to continue his work and study. In 1951 he was awarded the National Sculpture Society Purchase Prize for his sculpture Goose. John's latest success triggered an outpouring of creativity and by 1955 he held his first one man show at Antioch College. Cavanaugh's work was lauded as innovative and imaginative and he began to enjoy both social and financial success.


Phil said his brother was extremely enthusiastic and you never knew for sure what to expect next. In the '50s Phil had gone out to Arizona to work on a cattle ranch because he had problems with asthma. When he came back to Ohio, he went looking for John who was teaching at Ohio State University at the time.

John was teaching a class at Hayes Hall so Phil went to meet him after class. John was on the stage of a large lecture hall when Phil peered through the doorway. John spotted him, dropped everything, and in his excitement threw his arms in the air and hollered, "Phil, come here!" Phil was wearing a cowboy hat and cowboy boots at the time and John grabbed him by the shirt, pulled him up on stage and had the whole class sketch him. "That's just the way he was," Phil says.

Although Cavanaugh was said to be fun and entertaining he could also be very intense as well. And he like to shock people. In 1956, amidst questions about his sexual orientation, he did just that as he left Columbus and his family, unannounced, and showed up at a friend's house in New York City with nothing - "zero, not a bag, not a toothbrush," a friend said. After Cavanaugh left his family, his relationship with his mother soured and he never went home while she was living or saw her again.

Cavanaugh spent the next year brooding, destroying many of his own works and trying to piece his life back together. He even questioned if he would ever work again. Eventually he began immersing himself in his art. In 1959 Cavanaugh met Philip Froeder, an architecture student, and the two remained together until Cavanaugh's death in 1985.

"Leaping to life."

In the early 1960's Cavanaugh began working with lead and in 1963 he put on a one-man exhibition at the Sculpture Center in New York City where the New York Times praised his "graceful and emotionally subtle figures." The Herald Tribune said his sculptures were "charged with emotion… leap[ing] to life."

In 1964 Cavanaugh moved to Washington, D.C., where he presented semi-annual exhibitions and by 1984 he had created roughly 800 pieces in lead, bronze and terra-cotta; some 200 of them were life-size. Cavanaugh's passion for his work seemed inexhaustible as he staged six one-man shows at Ohio State, Ball State and Pennsylvania State University. He also staged 21 one-man shows in Washington.

A Columbus Dispatch article by Bill Mayr quoted Cavanaugh's son Jon as saying, "He was completely devoted to his art. It was an all consuming passion for him." Stange quoted a Cavanaugh friend as saying he made his art "with his heart and soul" and he was "never interested in money."

According to Phil, to say John was never interested in money was an understatement. He said John's main interest in money was to buy more supplies for his art. He said John never carried any money and, since he didn't own a car, "He walked everywhere," Phil said.

Once Phil and Ruth went to New York with a few friends to see John, who showed them the whole town --on foot. Phil said John could walk the souls right off your shoes. In the middle of the tour there was a cloudburst, Phil said, and John hailed a taxi to try and keep the group dry. He told the driver to drop them off about two blocks down the street but the driver wouldn't do it because with such a short trip there wasn't enough money in it for him. John said, "Alright," and they all jumped out into the downpour as John ordered them all to, "Leave the doors open!"

"He could be kind of ornery too," Ruth laughed.

In 1966 Cavanaugh spent the summer teaching art at Ball State University and in the 1970's he taught lead and ceramic sculpture in the Smithsonian Institution's Resident Associates Program. In 1972 he was elected the a membership in the National Sculpture Society and in 1982 he became a fellow at the Society wining the society's New York Art Foundry Prize in 1984.

Works in Washington.

Throughout the 1960's Cavanaugh and Froeder began a series of townhouse restorations in Washington, D.C., and Cavanaugh became the foreman. The pair would recreate dilapidated structures making them fashionable and Cavanaugh insisted on mounting a statue on each one.

Phil said the area where Cavanaugh lived is upscale now but it was rough and dilapidated back in those days. He said a lot of people were afraid to walk the streets but John walked them all the time and was so sociable that everybody knew him. Phil said John would have a lot of local toughs carry his art pieces around to shows for him.

Once when Phil and Ruth went to visit John in Washington in a motor home and ended up hauling a bunch of John's sculptures to New York City for a show. He said they had to leave one sculpture in D.C. because it wouldn't fit in the motor home.

According to Gordon Alt, director of the Cavanaugh Foundation and editor of the Cavanaugh biography, "In Search of Motion," many of Cavanaugh's sculptures are on structures in the Dupont Circle area of Washington. The area is a popular, upscale hub of activity a few blocks from the White House. Alt siad there are so many sculptures in Washington that "Everyone around here knows who Cavanaugh is."

"In Search of Motion."

Alt said there is also a larger-than-life Cavanaugh sculpture at Seward's Square on Capitol Hill. The sculpture is of William Seward's (Seward's Icebox) adopted daughter Olive Risley Seward.

Alt said that Cavanaugh's real goal was to find some special aspect of sculpture. "In this case it was movement," he said. Alt noted that is the reason he entitled Cavanaugh's biography/catalogue, "In Search of Motion."

Alt recalled that is wasn't until the 1980s, when Cavanaugh started working with his dancing figures, that he began to realize his goal. Alt referred to a sculpture called Dancing, saying "When you truly see the piece it's almost like he caught this figure in some still frame of motion."

Being an innovator, Cavanaugh was said to have always weighed what he had been taught verses what he had experienced. Alt said the traditional way of working with lead was to hammer it from the back. However, because of lead's low boiling point the friction of the hammering would often melt holes in the piece. Cavanaugh discovered that he could work from the front of the piece and move the molten lead out to the edges where he utilized it as he hammered. "It really was with lead that he achieved what he was after as a sculptor, " Alt said.

In his autobiography, Cavanaugh proclaimed, "Sheet lead discovered the artist John Cavanaugh in 1962." Cavanaugh's method of working with lead was revolutionary and it ultimately became his medium of choice.

Brilliant and reckless.

Phil said that John knew working with lead was dangerous. According to Phil, John has worked in a hospital when he was younger and was adept in health issues, even intuitive. Phil recalled the time he went to Columbus for knee surgery back in the 1950s. John would come to see him every day and one day Phil complained his ankle hurt.

After a quick inspection, John became irate and started reading the doctors the riot act. Within a few minutes he had them in Phil's room, removing the cast. Sure enough, Phil said, his foot was blue because the cast was cutting off the circulation to this foot.

Phil also recalled the time he and Ruth were planning to put together some stained glass windows using lead to frame the glass. "Leave lead alone!" John told them sternly.

As Cavanaugh continued to work with lead, his friends cautioned him about the danger of exposure to the material. But when it came to his art, Cavanaugh went at it with reckless abandon. He would work in lead without protection, breathe it, and absorb it into his skin. In 1983 he was diagnosed with a malignancy, underwent surgery and eventually died from lung cancer at the age of 63 in 1985. (According to Alt, Cavanaugh's finished works, in which the lead is oxidized, pose no health threat to viewers.)

His work lives on.

In "The Sculptor and His Art" Victoria Thompson said Cavanaugh's works "float weightless across space." She noted his art "…mirrored his inner turbulence."

In 1989 a 4 ½' bronze sculpture by Cavanaugh entitled Siren was purchased as a lasting tribute for Wyandot County, the artist's birthplace. The figure can be seen on the west side of Harrison Smith Park in Upper Sandusky.

The exhibit featuring Cavanaugh's hammered lead and bronze sculpture will continue at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center through April 17. There is also a Cavanaugh Foundation in Washington, D.C., that can be reached at 202-265-8622

This article was accompanied by four black and white images: 1. John Cavanaugh, holding one of his pounding tools. 2. Echo - hammered lead sculpture 3. Joy (Stephanie) - hammered lead sculpture 4. Serpentine Cat - cast aluminum sculpture


A Second Chance to see one of Ohio's finest

From The Other Paper's article - By Jordan Gentile - February 10 - 16, 2005 - Columbus, Ohio

When it rains, it pours - especially in the art world.

John Cavanaugh, the late sculptor whose poignant metal figures made him one of Ohio's most significant artists, was showcased just last month in a small exhibit at Ohio State. Now a far bigger retrospective of his large-scale works is on display at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center.

His figures' lithe, almost feline physiques evoke the work of Degas. So does his impressionistic ability to capture his subjects in private, unexpected moments - as with the two nuzzling cats in 'Groomers' or the boy sitting quietly in the park, his mind distracted, in 'Bench."

But such comparisons make Cavanaugh's work sound completely derivative, which certainly isn't the case. The artist builds upon Degas's iridescent images with touches of whimsy and mysticism that are completely his own.

His animals - domestic pets and bardyard critters - possess the mythical qualities of Chagall's horses, especially in pieces such as "The Trip," which depicts a child riding a hog. In the graceful way Cavanaugh renders the animal, it might as well be a unicorn carrying his precious cargo from cloud to cloud.

Cavanaugh embellishes this sense of magic though abstraction - as when his subjects blur together, like ghosts, from a sheet of metal.

He achieved this effect in 'Nuns,' in which two sisters share not only the same umbrella but the same body and soul. With 'Sanctum,' a figure of wiry muscularity strains to take human shape, emerging from a chunk of lead like the evolutionary man transcending the hunched inferiority of his predecessors. Many of the artist's female subjects are nearly swallowed by the endless material of their skirts, which trail off regally in huge swaths of bronze.

It all adds up to a kind of delicate grandeur - romantic but not melodramatic, poignant but never overly sentimental. It's a ravishing body of work from a local talent whose skill will continue to amaze for generations.


'An all-consuming passion'

Sculpting in lead eventually took life of John Cavanaugh

By Bill Mayr - From The Columbus Dispatch - Sunday, February 13, 2005

No question, the Ohio-born sculptor was dedicated to his work.

John Cavanaugh created hundreds of pieces, often using a heavy, unwieldy and dangerous raw material - lead.

The medium ultimately contributed to his death at age 63.

''He was completely devoted to his art," said his son, Jon A. Cavanaugh of Westerville. ''It was an all-consuming passion for him."

Twenty years after his death, the foundation that bears his name and oversees sales and exhibitions of his sculptures arranged two shows in Columbus.

One recently ended at Ohio State University; the other, a retrospective, continues through April 17 in the Columbus Cultural Arts Center.

During the latter, the Columbus Museum of Art, 480 E. Broad St., and the Riffe Gallery, 77 S. High St., will each display single pieces by Cavanaugh.

Not since 1965 have his works been put on view in central Ohio, according to Gordon Alt, executive director of the John Cavanaugh Foundation.

The retrospective, Alt said, ''has been east and west, but I wanted to move the exhibit into the Midwest. I wanted to bring Cavanaugh home."

If not an artist, Cavanaugh might have made a good scientist, with his curiosity and willingness to experiment. He worked in clay, metals and even wax, developing sculptural techniques as he went.

"In his time, he's working and pioneering processes," said Malcolm Cochran, an Ohio State University art professor and the coordinator of the university's sculpture program.

"His research, exploration of materials, is a parallel to what students are doing now."

Cavanaugh graduated from OSU 60 years ago and lived in Columbus for several years before moving to the East Coast, where he spent much of his professional career.

He and his work perhaps aren't that well-known in Columbus, except among those who own pieces or who knew him half a century ago.

Cochran learned of Cavanaugh a year ago, when the John Cavanaugh Foundation contacted the university.

One result is the creation of a graduate fellowship in sculpture at OSU in Cavanaugh's name and supported financially by the foundation.

And Cochran became familiar with Cavanaugh's lead sculptures.

"He worked from the outside; the hammer marks, the evidence of making, are an integral part of the pieces. . . .

It's unusual, not the common way of working with metal sculpture," Cochran said.

"The things I am drawn to are the surface qualities, the patina that develops, the lack of preciousness.

"There are odd turns in them, and I like those - things I didn't notice immediately but, when you get up closer, you notice and like."

Just as his art was complex, so was Cavanaugh's personal life.

He was born in 1921 in Sycamore, in Wyandot County. His father committed suicide when the boy was 8. Along with his mother and three brothers, Cavanaugh worked to support the family during the Depression.

In the 1930s, he was sent to live and study with Urbana artist Alice Archer Sewall James, a leading member of the Swedenborgian community there. Its members followed the teachings of 18 th-century Swedish scientist, philosopher and theologian Emanuel Swedenborg, who envisioned a new form of Christianity.

According to In Search of Motion (1995), containing a biography of Cavanaugh by Maren Strange, Cavanaugh said he "got more of Swedenborg than needed."

He graduated from Urbana High School, then entered OSU in 1942, with help from a gift of $100 from James.

He lived in a scholarship dorm for low-income, high talent students and in three years graduated with a fine-arts degree in sculpture.

While at college, he had homosexual affairs and also dated women, according to the biography.

He got married, to Janet, after graduation. Their first child, a son, died in infancy of hydrocephalus in 1947. A second son (Jon) was born two years later.

Cavanaugh took graduate courses at OSU and taught there and at Columbus Art School, predecessor of the Columbus College of Art & Design.

Working in ceramics and in hammered metal, he won recognition from groups such as the National Sculpture Society and the Columbus Art League as his career blossomed.

Then, in 1956, he separated from his family.

"It was an emotional thing," his son said. "His paintings were left; his ceramics were left. He left on his own - no baggage, no nothing."

The artist moved to New York but remained in touch with his family.

His wife remarried; Janet Gallant lives in Delaware.

Cavanaugh began working with sheets of lead, a metal infrequently used by sculptors because of its softness. He devised hammering techniques to create relief and three dimensional figures.

"He'd use everything - granite balls, baseball bats, hammers, hatchets," Alt said.

The lead sheets could range up to 60 inches square and weigh hundreds of pounds.

"It's a paradox," Alt said. "The subtlety of the finished pieces is amazing. And it's lead."

In 1964, Cavanaugh left New York for Washington, where he lived for two decades and made about 800 lead, terra-cotta and bronze pieces.

Years of working directly with lead took their toll. Cavanaugh was found to have lung cancer caused by lead exposure; he died in 1985.

Prudence Gill, curator of the recent Cavanaugh exhibit at OSU's Hopkins Hall Gallery, visited the foundation named for him in Washington.

"As I walked around the neighborhood he lived in, I saw a number of buildings that have embedded into their walls pieces of his," she said. "That's a wonderful legacy for an artist."


REVIEW - Columbus Cultural Arts Center - Ohio State University

Sculpting in lead eventually took life of John Cavanaugh

From the Columbus Dispatch Review - Feb 13, 2005
By Christoher A. Yates for the Columbus Dispatch

In vastly different retrospectives, sculptor John Cavanaugh has finally come home.

Pieces by the artist, who began his career in Columbus, were recently displayed in the Hopkins Hall Gallery at Ohio State University.

Small and intimate in scope, the well-balanced exhibit encouraged visitors to consider events of his life - and how such events might translate into art.

Included were works in lead, clay, bronze, paint and mixed media as well as handmade artist notebooks that reveal his creative and intellectual processes.

Most striking: his use of humor to develop ideas.

The second - and continuing - retrospective, in the Columbus Cultural Arts Center, is packed with more than 70 pieces.

Exploring a range of subject matter, Cavanaugh produced works in a stylized realism that focused on fluidity and motion. His hammered lead sheets appear weightless. (According to Gordon Alt, executive director of the John Cavanaugh Foundation, the finished works, in which the lead is oxidized, pose no heealth threats to viewers.)

In Dancing, lead with copper patina becomes a dance's gown. Forms and lines repeat through space, creating a cubistlike progression.

Other works are more static. In Swann'a Way (Du Core de Chez Swann), a modeled female form appears to rest above and below a blanket of metal. The lead sheet becomes both figure and ground.

Several portrait busts, including Sonia (Formerly Ancestor), attest to Cavanaugh's skill as a representational sculptor. He is clearly a master of his medium.

Animals and strange, impish figures with large heads are the subjects of several other pieces. Cavanaugh used such imagery to ponder ideas and clear his mind.

Many pieces reflect Cavanaugh's complex life: A strict religious upbringing, hearing difficulties, early education in the Swedenborg Church, the influence of powerful female figures, the death of his first born child and his struggle with homosexuality all affected his artistic choices.

He actively questioned what he was taught verses what he experienced.

Artists often leave intriquing legacies. Cavanaugh's sculpture speaks volumes about a life lived and examined with passion and creativity.


Artwork by former Urbana resident Cavanaugh to be shown in Columbus

Urbana Daily Citizen, Jan 14, 2005
Special to the Citizen

Two exhibitions of work by the late John Cavanaugh, Urbana High School graduate and nationally-recognized sculptor, will open in Columbus this month.

They are being sponsored by the John Cavanaugh Foundation in Washington D.C. The first exhibition will open Jan. 18 at The Ohio State University Hopkins Hall Gallery. It will continue for two weeks.

Gordon Alt, executive director of the Cavanaugh Foundation, said the OSU exhibit "will feature many objects never before shown including paintings, unpublished books containing his collages, drawings and wonderful captions related to the story line of the work, along with smaller scale ceramic and lead sculpture."

The second exhibition will be a major retrospective of Cavanaugh's hammered lead and bronze sculpture at the Columbus Cultural Arts Center January 23 - April 17. Cavanaugh served as vice president of the Center in 1957-58.

According to Alt, this exhibition will feature some of Cavanaugh's larger works and several pieces that have not been shown since the artist's death in 1985.

About the artist

After graduation from Urbana High School, Cavanaugh studied with Alice Archer Sewall James, founder of the Urbana Movement.

The Cavanaugh Foundation News quotes him as saying, "After five years of strict training Mrs. James gave me 100.00 and directed me to go to college. I did what she told me to do and registered at Ohio State University."

He received a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Ohio State in 1951. He did graduate work at the University of Iowa and studied at the Sculpture Center in New York City.

Cavanaugh was a teacher and consultant for the Columbus College of Art and Design, Ball State University and the Smithsonian Associates. He was a member of the National Sculpture Society and is represented in galleries and private collections throughout the United States.

Alt said that Ohio State, in collaboration with the Cavanaugh Foundation, has created a John Cavanaugh Fellowship. "It represents the Foundation's efforts to support emerging artists and further elevate the legacy of this great sculptor," he said.

A Cavanaugh Web site is being developed and Alt said he expects it to be online this spring.

The Columbus exhibitions are very timely," said Chuck Johnson, chairman of the county's bicentennial society. "John William Cavanaugh is one of the county's nationally-respected artists who are being honored during out 200th anniversary.

"It is also of interest to know that Hopkins Hall, site of the OSU exhibit, was names for Champaign County artist James Hopkins, former head of the art department at Ohio State.

"There is yet another county connection." Johnson said. "Cavanaugh was a member of the National Sculpture Society whose first president was John Quincy Adams Ward, native of Urbana and grandson of its founder, praised by his peers as the dean of American sculpture. Champaign County artists, past and present, have given us much to celebrate."