This January 2015 FHSU hosted a workshop with Beth Cavener, an artist that I have had a serious art crush on since first seeing her work years ago. That piece, titles A Rush of Blood to the Head is still tremendously influential to my work and aspiration as an artist. It can be viewed here:
I have continued following her work and she has been the standard both for success and quality for myself as an artist. The workshop was then something that I looked forward to tremendously.
Before I begin discussing my experience I must clarify that I was very sick the entire time I was in Kansas, falling ill with the flu a few days before leaving and staying ill the entire time, that surly impacted my feelings. Another caveat was a major mental health diagnosis I received just before leaving that left me feeling terrified and deeply constrained. So it was through this filter that I went to meet my art hero/crush.
First I must say that it was truly the most expansive and informative workshop I’ve ever attended. Her technique is radical and her approach is methodical and meticulous, it is no surprise that she has been so successful. In addition to her tremendous skill the work she has put in to every aspect of her career is astounding. She told stories of how her first showing experience in New York that was so ballsy and brilliant that I could barely cover my awe.
Her style of working is doubtless detailed in other places but I will give a brief summary. Her process begins with a series of sketches in clay. These small studies are usually done in large numbers as a way to work through ideas and solve problems. For this workshop she could only make one based on suggestions from the group. We were large and engaged and there were many suggestions that came down to a vote. through a somewhat democratic process she agreed to work with a wolf twisted in a rope.
These models are done in oil clay so that they might stay workable and salvageable. She rarely keeps these. They are built solid using bamboo skewers as armature. At this point she is considering composition and posture and formulating the procedure for the armature for the full size piece which range from life-size, to much larger.
The armature for the large sculpture is made from gas pipe relying on 1/2″ pipe and a variety of connectors.
The pipe shown here is not galvanized, which she prefers because it prevents corrosion, so these were wrapped in electrical tape to prevent that. The frame-work is screwed down to the floor or table and the structure is built with special attention to removing it when the sculpture is built. The most important aspect of this process is to remember that the frame is a chair for the clay rather than bones for an animal. The clay must be supported from underneath for the most part.
This structure was tried and edited many times to be sure it would suffice for the entire piece, some of the sculptures weigh many hundreds of pounds when they are in process.
Once the armature is built the clay is applied, first wrapping the pipe and then building in layers until the basic size is achieved.
The legs are supported by dowels wrapped in electrical tape and jointed so that the body can be manipulated as it is built.
Things like tails and ears that can be relied on to create emotion are added last or even after firing so that they cannot be relied upon.
Once the piece is relatively finished it is cut apart, piece by piece and hollowed out, then reattached in sections and fired.
The sculpting part of this technique is quick and expressive, the restructuring and hollowing is slow and meticulous. In the end, every surface, including those impossible to see have been finished to her own anatomical perfection.
This process was detailed in slide shows that document many of her favorite pieces including A Rush of Blood to the Head which was wonderful to see.
As I mentioned earlier we were a very large group and asked a load of questions. She was very generous in answering all of these distractions and more revealing much about her self and her process as she worked. As a result she was not happy with the progress she was able to make on the piece. By the end of the workshop she asked that we not share images of the work but especially not of her. I have honored her wishes not be shown in the images but not her request not to have the work shown, partly because this is a post about my experience in this workshop and partly for reasons I will now elaborate.
Throughout the days of the workshop Beth was incredibly candid about herself, her process and her struggles both as a person and an artist. She seemed to make great connection with many of the students and their work, not however with me. Likely she was put off by my fan girl shimmer, that while i did try to restrain it, could only have been obvious and possibly for reasons I have mentioned before, I was ill and very caught up in my own mental health issues and so may not have been available for connection. So then in spite of my attempts I felt very much unacceptable to this person that I admired so much.
Because of this I was determined not to write about this experience. both to protect her and myself for I felt very much exposed and did not want to risk her displeasure, still fawning on some sad level, and so the experience ended. I was left to wonder what the students who did connect had that I lacked and if there was something I was fundamentally lacking that would prevent me from ever achieving the success of my idol and those class mates that were acceptable to the higher power that an internationally known and hugely talented artist represented.
I did attempt the technique but as I work at such a small-scale for the animals of the Magic Box that it was largely inappropriate. Still, I did manage a pose for Brittany the unicorn that I have not been able to pull off before. So then after so much anticipation I left the workshop drained and exhausted, feeling less able than I had in many years to achieve the moderate success that I have worked toward.
And so it remained, I would think of this post often but could not find a way to write about the experience in a way that would be meaningful to myself and my readers as well. In fact, this dilemma seemed to halt the blog all together, as those of you who read regularly will have noticed. Yet I was confident that time would reveal a way to relate the experience and perhaps relieve many pressures of being correct and acceptable that is such a difficult part of life as an artist.
And so that opportunity finally came today through one of my many Facebook clay groups. I found a video, an interview with Beth that I can’t imagine her having made when we met several months ago. It is a beautiful film that describes her process, her work and her struggles in a way that was so very revealing.
I have no wish to detail my mental process at seeing her expose herself and her insecurities and her work for the camera, but it is sufficient to say that I was moved by her courage to do so and by the very similarities that seem to so distress me in January.
The experience did not produce a great patron or helper as I may have hoped in my fantasy before meeting, but a teacher, a true teacher, with the power to reveal one of the fundamental truths of life in the arts. The truth of the constant self exposure that is required to survive the process of show entries and openings combined with a process of exposing ones self through work that digs into the soul every day.
I admire her more than ever, yet I no longer feel the art crush that I used to. This is obviously desirable, allowing her to be a person, complex and rich and myself also, with all of my great talents and imperfections.
I won’t try to assist her or do further workshops or any other absurd fantasy that occurred to me in the time of not being acceptable in January but she will always be held in great esteem and gratitude for showing me that even the greatest artists are people as myself, complex and conflicted.
Please look her up, her website is gorgeous and so is her work.