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Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh
 
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Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh is a daughter of George Kubler, one of the most influential art historians of the twentieth century. Not surprisingly, she was nurtured from earliest childhood in an environment rich in the visual arts. A self-taught artist, who only became a full-time sculptor in middle age, Kavanagh’s artistic consciousness was nurtured by extensive travels and study in South America and Europe. Although she had imagined becoming an artist after college, she taught in a local high school while raising her family before finally giving in to her life-long passion for translating form into sculpture.

Teaching herself to carve stone in the Modernist tradition of Moore, Hepworth and Arp, Kavanagh gradually moved away from these early influences to develop a signature style of her own characterized by rounded, sensual shapes. Having spent the first ten years of her career working exclusively in stone, as demand for her sculpture increased, Kavanagh began carving maquettes out of polystyrene, finishing them with plaster for casting in bronze and aluminum.

In 2005, Kavanagh represented the United States Virgin Islands Council on the Arts at the 51st Venice Biennale with five Shape of Time sculptures honoring her father’s seminal treatise on art history, The Shape of Time (Yale University Press, 1961). These sculptures address such diverse subjects as Chacmool, the Toltec-Maya recumbent rain god that inspired Henry Moore, and Aevum, a notion attributed to St. Thomas Aquinas that Kubler describes as “the duration of human souls, intermittent between time and eternity, having a beginning but no end.” Kavanagh’s interpretation of this concept – which she has carved in different ways -- appeals to health care professionals, as castings of her Aevum sculptures are located in the lobbies of the Smilow Cancer Hospital in New Haven, CT, and the University Hospital of Princeton in Plainsboro, NJ.

Preparing for the Biennale, Kavanagh was also carving maquettes for the “Muse Project,” a tribute to female artists who have inspired her. Her Muse sculptures were eventually exhibited in Miami’s Design District during Art Basel Miami Beach in 2007, but work on them was interrupted by the December 26, 2004 tsunami that devastated Indonesia.

Horrified by what she was seeing on television, Kavanagh felt compelled to drop everything in an attempt to make sculpture that might reconcile water’s capacity for horrific destruction with its inherent fluid grace. “The Tsunami Project,” first exhibited at New York’s Blue Mountain gallery in September, 2006, also marked a turning point when Kavanagh decided to direct her attention toward environmental issues in hopes that her work might raise consciousness about the health of our oceans, and consequently, the health of our planet.

Writing in the December, 2006 issue of SCULPTURE, William Zimmer noted that while a “tsunami is universally feared as a bringer of mass destruction, if it could be arrested, it would have an awesomely beautiful shape. Kavanagh has created a dozen different sculptures that reiterate the essential sublimity of the giant waves…The exalting of something awful is a seeming contradiction that might be difficult to assimilate, but it’s the kind of singular tension embraced by the highest art.” Celebrating the “awful” may seem anachronistic, but it fuels emotional responses in Kavanagh’s deep well of environmental concern. Worry about the melting of the Polar cap encouraged her to consult with glaciologists about ice moulins, the tubular chutes through which glacial melt water cascades into the sea. “ARCTIC ICE MELT: moulins of my mind,” was previewed during the International Polar Weekend at the American Museum of Natural History in February, 2009, and later exhibited at the Blue Mountain Gallery in New York. Two of Kavanagh’s Moulin sculptures were also installed at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA in a year-long exhibit called “Ripple Effect: The Art of Water.”

While working on the Moulin sculptures, Kavanagh began wondering how all those countless gallons of onrushing fresh water was affecting marine life at the edge of calving glaciers. Eventually, her inquiries led her to discover a beautiful microscopic marine animal called a pteropod (also known as a “Sea Butterfly”). Although pteropods are not threatened by melt water per se, they are potentially subject to harm from rising levels of ocean acidification caused by CO2 emissions. This is a genuine concern as pteropods are at the base of the marine food web. Delighted that pteropods evoke Arp, Miro and Kandinsky, Kavanagh felt she had discovered an ideal surrogate for the health of our oceans, and began carving abstract interpretations of these tiny creatures, enlarged some 400 times.

Questioning whether her abstract maquettes were sufficiently representational, Kavanagh wrote to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) for advice. Thinking a fine art exhibition would be a compelling form of outreach, WHOI decided to collaborate. In May of 2012, “THE PTEROPOD PROJECT: charismatic microfauna” was shown at the Blue Mountain Gallery in New York.

Writing about the pteropod sculptures, art historian Stephanie Grilli noted that Kavanagh “takes the minimal components of the pteropod and sets them in off-balanced arrangements. This torsion away from the central axis lends a visceral feeling of motion in the viewer. In suspended animation, the figures could be protean spirits of the deep, winged messengers from the ocean world….Reaching back into history, Kavanagh elevates the microscopic pteropod through her fluency with the world’s sculptural traditions.”

Kavanagh intends to continue creating installations highlighting environmental issues by integrating her sculpture with science and education. While aspects of water will likely inform a significant portion of her art, Kavanagh’s sensitivity to natural shapes, and her passion for portraying “essence” will always find expression in her work. As Kavanagh has often stated, “Nature is the best teacher.

 

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