Ali Cavanaugh has a new series of watercolors on clay panels called Immerse (first three images) with a reception on September 18 at the Gold Gallery in Boston. Although we typically profile Mormon artists we are going to make an exception for the fantastic Cavanaugh who I would call an honorary Mormon artist. She received a BFA from Kendall College of Art and Design and during her years in Santa Fe developed her modern fresco process on kaolin clay. Cavanaugh’s paintings have been featured in the Huffington Post, Fine Art Connoisseur, Hi-Fructose, The New York Times Magazine, and American Artist Watercolor. Cavanaugh is Catholic and lives in St. Louis, Missouri with her husband and four children.
Tell us about your background and your art. It was midway through art school (the early 1990s) when I started longing for a baby, for a family of my own. My mom and I were abandoned by my drug addicted father and I knew without a doubt that having a baby was going to be the experience that brought healing and closure to the black hole that was deep in my core. I met my husband, we fell in love, got married, and 3 days after college graduation I gave birth to a beautiful baby girl, Neve. There are no words to describe that profound experience of holding your first born. I soon discovered that this whole new world of ‘my little family’ was everything I dreamed it would be. The unconditional love that I experienced from my baby and husband set my heart on fire. The artist in me wanted to make my baby’s entire existence a work of art. I cherished every minute of her life as something so special unique, mindful that every moment was unrepeatable. I relished in the idyllic world that I had created and that I could re-experience my childhood vicariously through her. My first painting of Neve was when she was still in utero in 1994. Although I did paint a few pieces of her during those early years, it wasn’t until she was about five that she became an integral part of my art. As she grew I began to be inspired by more than just our mother daughter bond. I discovered that she was an incredible model. The unexpected compositions that she would come up with while modeling inspired me like nothing I’ve ever experienced before. Almost every time I looked at her I would visualize a perfect painting. I found that she was an inexhaustible subject and I became obsessed with painting her. As she approached 17 yrs old I knew that our relationship was going to change. I knew that my art was going to change, that a season of my life was coming to an end. I knew that she’d be moving out, going to college, and starting a life of her own. I have to be honest, when Neve did move out and started college I felt like one of my limbs had been torn from my body. Over time I healed and adjusted to the change.
Explain your series Immerse. I took time off in 2014 to step back and evaluate my work and the era that I felt was coming to an end. My new baby, Saoirse, just turned two years old. This is one of my favorite ages of children because it is when the baby starts to become a person. They grow more animated as their language develops and their physical mannerisms become more adult-like. In February of 2015 I painted my first painting of Saoirse and instantly fell in love with her as my muse. Her expression is open and honest. The innocence, the energy, the whole dynamic was a huge shift from my previous eight years of work of mostly young teen women with inward, private emotion. This spring my watercolor technique rapidly changed as I responded to the presence of a younger person in my paintings. I limited my palette to blues and greens to reflect a dream state. I began pouring and dripping watercolors instead of controlling each paint stroke with tiny brushes. My approach previously was that I took my idea and then painted every square inch with perfection and control. With these new works, I let the waterfall and move and dry and then it speaks to me. I then respond by laying down more color. The painting and I go back and forth as if we are in conversation. My new approach is to allow space for surprises. I have become forgiving in my process so that I can leave unexpected mishaps in the final painting. I have the freedom and skill to develop areas where I intend for the emotion to be more direct, while I embrace the imperfections left by the spontaneous creative process.
What are you working on next? I have my first museum show at the Ellen Noel Art Museum in Odessa, Texas scheduled for spring of 2017. I will be spending the majority of 2016 working on that exhibition. I have several portrait commissions in my studio that will get wrapped up over the next few months. I also have a series of paintings of a beautiful little 3 year old that have been praying for that has Pulmonary Vein Stenosis among other things. He fights everyday for his life. He is a living saint and his story moves me deeply, so I have to paint him. I will have that show locally in our small town probably sometime in 2016.