Ceramicist Beth Cavener dives into human psychology at Rosewood workshop

By Laura Jones

Photo: Beth Cavener works on ‘In Bocca al Lupo,’ a process she explains during her workshop at Rosewood Arts Center April 28-30‘I

Montana-based ceramicist Beth Cavener is an elusive artist, and there are not many things as elusive as that. Her work depicts human emotions through the guise of animal sculptures, and plays at the “awkward edges between the animal and human” world. For example: two white goats, chained together and butting heads in a sculpture called “Committed”; a tender-eyed wildcat named “Forgiveness,” even as it bats a hand at a bird’s nest; and a comical yellow hare, hit square in the head by a brick, with the tongue-in-cheek title of “The Optimist.

Cavener’s work is both evocative and uncanny. Cavener herself is both shy and elusive. As a journalist reporting on her upcoming workshop at the Rosewood Arts Centre, Friday, April 28 – Sunday, April 30, and waiting for her to return my calls, I might be best portrayed as one of her ceramic animals. A goat squinting through bifocals and repeatedly checking my Gmail. Let’s call it “Perseverance.

But no matter. Cavener’s sculptures, done in the medium of ceramics, are one-of-a-kind and worth the wait. Ceramics are created from clay, a medium we are used to thinking of as utilitarian, for plates or cups, those kinds of things. Cavener’s work elevates the craft, maintaining evidence of the artist’s hand in intricate gesture so that the animals appear supple and plush, almost an ooze. Their most interesting quality is the way they display human emotion, standing in for human portraits. Some of them, like a piece called “Unrequited,” currently on display at the Akron Art Museum (AAM) in its Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose show, are self-portraits of the artist.

What makes them feel like a human portrait? Elizabeth Carney, assistant curator of the AAM, points out that, on a formal level, the sculptures portray distinctly human physical characteristics, such as human genitalia, collarbones, or belly buttons, combined with a psychology or self-consciousness. It’s also in the eyes.

“The sculptures have irises and pupils; they don’t look like animal eyes,” she says. “They’re even hooded like a human eye. The figures she makes speak to us as people and we find ourselves reflected in these animals.”

Take for instance “Unrequited,” which was created by the artist after the birth of her son. In it, a gray and white hare lies on its back, with its obviously female genitalia exposed. The hare scrunches up the excess skin on her belly, while her eyes avoid the viewer’s gaze. The piece speaks to the unattractive, vulnerable feelings women sometimes feel after giving birth. Cavener struggled with these emotions and explored them through the hare.

On her website, a video that features Cavener explains, “I’ll take an emotion like fear or aggression and spend a whole two-year period designing maybe six to eight characters that are all dealing with fear and aggression.” Her process is solitary, and it’s clear from her comments in the video that she struggles with feelings of anxiety, loneliness, and self-doubt, the artist’s traditional trifecta. But dwelling inside these feelings, not avoiding them, is how she prefers to work. “Sometimes loneliness,” she says, “is easier than being scared.”

The size of Cavener’s sculptures varies, which is important, given the medium. Some, like the two in the Hi-Fructose show, are small and seem easily portable. There’s a sense you could pick them up and tuck them under your arm. Others are massive, as big as 2,400 pounds, such as a sculpture of a wolf, as large as a human. The heaviness derives from the clay, which is literally compressed earth. As it dries, moisture evaporates out, leaving behind a brittle, flaky substance that must be baked or “fired” at a very high temperature. Then the work is an immutable solid: heavy, massive weight.

The process to create them is complex, involving multiple oil clay preliminary studies to determine the final size of a work. Then, armature, wrapped in electrical tape, is employed to lend support to the heavy clay, with the end piece being crafted directly on to the armature to hold it up. Cavener will explain more about her process in the upcoming three-day workshop, including providing demos aimed at teaching her techniques and rationale. The workshop is being held in conjunction with a trip, coordinated by Rosewood Arts Centre, to Akron’s Hi-Fructose show. It’s also part of Rosewood’s 12-month celebration of the ceramic arts, Set in Stoneware: A Year of Clay.

Shayna McConville, division manager of cultural arts for Rosewood, says their facility has one of the region’s most accessible and affordable ceramics studios, which motivated the year’s theme. They chose Cavener to headline it because, she says, “Cavener’s work appeals to a wide range of people beyond ceramic artists. It pushes the boundaries of what could be considered comfortable in a traditional ceramics studio. I hope attendees will learn new ways to work in clay, and the process of a contemporary artist.”


Beth Cavener’s ceramics workshop takes place Friday, April 28 – Sunday, April 30 at Rosewood Arts Centre, 2655 Olson Dr. in Kettering. To register, please visit PlayKettering.org/initiatives. Turn the Page: The First Ten Years of Hi-Fructose is on display at the Akron Art Museum through May 7. To register for the Rosewood Arts Centre trip, please visit PlayKettering.org/initiatives. For more information on Beth Cavener, please visit FollowTheBlackRabbit.com.


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