The Sculptural Work of John Cavanaugh
Born in Sycamore, Ohio in September of 1921, John Cavanaugh was an American sculptor who lived and worked in the Du Pont Circle area of Washington D.C.. The third son of four born to poor, intensely religious parents, he lost his father to suicide in 1929. Recognizing her son’s artistic talent and seeing no local options where he could study, Hilda Cavanaugh, John’s mother, sent him to the Ursulan convent in Tiffin, Ohio. In 1938, Cavanaugh relocated to Urbana, Ohio, to study art under painter and designer Alice Archer Sewall James. After his studies with James which included sculpture, Cavanaugh registered at Ohio State University, with initial studies in Literature and English Composition. After adding sculpture courses in his second year, he graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in 1945.
In 1946, John Cavanaugh met and married Janet Corneille in Columbus, Ohio. After a move to Boston where John studied at the Swedenborgian Theological School, the couple had a son together, who due to hydrocephalic syndrome died shortly after birth. A second son, Jon, would later be born in 1951. In 1948, after a move to Iowa, Cavanaugh enrolled at the University of Iowa to study engraving and sculpture. To further his education, he again enrolled at Ohio State University where he continued his sculptural work with experiments in ceramic, cast stone, wood, and sheet metal.
Cavanaugh won the National Sculpture Society’s Purchase Prize in 1951 for his sculpture, “Goose”, which was purchased by Syracuse University’s Everson Museum. In 1955, he had his first solo exhibitions at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, Ohio, and the Cranbook Academy of Art in Michigan. With the added recognition to his growing reputation, Cavanaugh was given a faculty position at the Columbus Museum School in Georgia where he taught modeling classes. During this period, he began a sculptural series of haunting large-headed children, possibly in reference to his first-born child, which he repeated through the 1960s and 1970s.
In the mid-1950s, John Cavanaugh began working at North American Aviation, a major aerospace manufacturer responsible for a number of historic aircraft. Using metal salvaged from the company’s salvage yard, he created the 1954 hammered metal “Goat Head”, which won the 1954 Ohio Ceramic and Sculpture Exhibition’s highest honor. Through his working at the NAA, Cavanaugh was able to set up a studio space in Columbus, Ohio. The year of 1956 was a difficult one for Cavanaugh. With growing doubts about his sexuality, his marriage, his art and religious beliefs, he left in September of that year for New York, leaving his wife and son, extended family and friends behind. His mother disowned Cavanaugh and tried to turn his three brothers against him; he never saw his mother again and only reconciled with his brothers after her death. Cavanaugh, however, stayed on good terms with both his wife, Janet, and his son.
Old friends from Ohio helped John Cavanaugh settle on Staten Island; he supported himself by working part-time as an industrial designer and producing window displays and murals for Resident Display in Greenwich Village. Several months after his arrival, John Cavanaugh met Dorothea Denslow, who was acting Director and founder of the New York Sculpture Center in Brooklynn. In return for work at the Center, he received free studio space for his terracotta sculptural work. By 1958, Cavanaugh had his self-confidence back and was regularly working on new creations. In 1959, he met Greenwich Village resident Philip Froeder, who was studying architecture at Columbia University in New York. They soon became partners, a relationship which lasted until Cavanaugh’s death.
During the early 1960s, Cavanaugh began to produce bronze castings of his terracotta work, either as a single cast or in small editions. In 1962, he started using lead as a sculptural medium, which enabled him to quickly produce larger-scale sculptures without the prohibitive cost of bronze. Cavanaugh met the established hammered-copper sculptor Nina Winkel during this time; she became an increasingly important influence and support to him. In 1963 Cavanaugh had his first solo exhibition at the Sculpture Center, where he showed forty-seven works in lead, bronze and terracotta to positive reviews.
John Cavanaugh and Philip Froeder moved to Washington D.C. in 1963, where they both set up studio/exhibition spaces in the neighborhood of Du Pont Circle. After his first studio show in 1964 led to major commissions, Cavanaugh presented twice yearly studio exhibitions from 1964 to 1984; these amounted to eight hundred works in lead, ceramic stoneware and bronze, of which two hundred were life-sized. He also had five additional solo shows in New York’s Sculpture Center, single shows at Ohio State University in 1964, and a show at Indiana’s Ball State University in 1976.
Cavanaugh regularly exhibited with the National Sculpture Society in New York, which now awards the John Cavanaugh Silver Medal on an annual basis. A recipient of numerous awards, he was awarded the 1984 New York Foundry Prize of the National Sculpture Society. Many of his works are in the public spaces and adorn the facades and walkways of homes in Washington D.C. Cavanaugh’s major commissions include several major works for the Marriott, the Landmark Corporation and the Crown Tower apartment complex in New Haven, Connecticut, among others.
In the early 1980s, John Cavanaugh was stricken with illness, found to be related to cancer from working with lead. During his last two years he worked with intensity; however, by June of 1984, he did not have the strength to hammer the lead into shape. Cavanaugh turned to specialized glass painting and, using a combinations of plastic and was, sculpted pieces to be cast in bronze. By December of that year, he had produced over seventy wax models for casting, including five life-sized figures. John Cavanaugh died in Washington, D.C., on January 9th in 1985.
Cavanaugh’s life partner, Philip Froeder, fulfilled Cavanaugh’s wish for a final exhibition called “The Spirit of Motion is Almost Balanced”. He also founded the John Cavanaugh Foundation to promote and support the work and ideas of Cavanaugh. Cavanaugh’s sculpture “Demeter” can be seen in the Friendship Garden of the U.S. National Arboretum; his sculpture of Olive Risley Seward is installed in a private residence in Southeast Washington, near Seward Square.There are several sculptural plaques done by Cavanaugh on buildings in the Dupont Circle area.
The john Cavanaugh Foundation is located at: http://www.cavanaughfoundation.org