Regal, submissive, smug, and primal. Browse the sculptures of Beth Cavener and you’ll see both predators and prey – predominantly hares – suspended in postures that powerfully portray the fused emotional tangles of both man and beast. In a world in which technology keeps us physically distant from people, humans are largely “out of their bodies” and inside their own heads, and as a result, many of us have lost touch with our feelings. But the sculptures of Beth Cavener are helping to bridge the head/heart gap by quickly and effectively transporting us to a grittier, more sensual place in time when we didn’t merely gape at animals in cages – we walked among them.
The daughter of a scientist, Cavener (also known as Beth Cavener Stichter) has stated that for a great many years – since the time she was a girl in fact- she has viewed people as caricatures; as animals. So while her fans might see a hare, a goat, a wolf, and a capybara-like beast (Cavener’s four favorite archetypes), the backstories of these animals are very personal to the artist, and their development involves a deep and meditative process of self-reflection. The artist muses over, plans, sketches, and eventually immortalizes friends, neighbors, former lovers, or fleeting strangers she witnesses in passing (all whom left a significant emotional impression) in her chosen medium – commercial clay called Soldate 60.
“What (my subjects) all have in common” Cavener stated in a 2012 interview, “is that some aspect of their human character- whether it is alluring or repulsive- struck me, and I have sought to understand and articulate that moment through these animal skins.”
Cavener created five evocative, visceral works for a 2015 group ceramics show at Peters Projects in New Mexico titled “Trophies and Prey: A Contemporary Bestiary”. The artist gave the sculptures the following titles: Trapped, Forgiveness, Kept, Unrequited, and Committed; all words relating to the deep, tumultuous nature of romantic, human relationships. And did she succeed at conveying these states of being? Indeed she did, with flying colors, and all in her signature language of fluid gesture and palpable tension.
The artist’s process is focused and intense. Cavener first chooses to hone in on a specific emotional state, such as fear or aggression. She then takes two years creating six to eight characters that deal with those two emotions. And as any devoted introspective will attest, making the time to explore a specific emotion – and REALLY committing to locking yourself up in that train – will give you powerful insight into reading and depicting the spectrum of nuances therein.
For example, while working the six to eight pieces devoted to, say, anger, Cavener would begin her “intense, over the top, probably largely unnecessary” process of building pipe armatures, sculpting, cutting, hollowing, firing, re-assembling, and painting. And, thus engaged, she would think about and work through the questions she has about anger. Cavener, who spends a great deal of time alone in her studio, has stated that a large portion of her work focuses on loneliness, a state of being she has attested to feeling comfortable with “even though she is not happy being there.”
Her process is exploratory and brave. To face any powerful emotion (especially anger) this intimately is to dive, head first, into a large pool filled with blood-red water while wearing an underwater iPod blasting death metal. You hold your breath and explore every inch of that pool, while maintaining enough sanity and artistic vision to translate all that you’ve ingested into a large, structurally complicated, aesthetically stunning (and believable) animal embodiment.
Like a modern-day Sherlock Holmes, Cavener is a keen observer who has learned to read the countless minute details of human interactions and behavior.
“The things we leave unsaid are far more important than the words spoken out-loud to one another. I have learned to read meaning in the subtler signs; a look, the way one holds one’s hands, the incline of the head, and the slightest unconscious gesture. I rely on animal body language in my work as a metaphor for these underlying patterns, transforming the animal subjects into human psychological portraits.”
By using specific animals as symbols and stereotypes, Beth Cavener depicts human conflicts and consequences much like Aesop did in his well-known ancient Greek fables. Cavener illustrates compelling human situations not with words but in clay, by using fauna she so expertly nurtures from conception to birth, sometimes using as much as two thousand pounds of clay at the outset.
So aside from their beauty, their stellar craftsmanship, the personalities that leap forth from their eyes…what is the “real” gift given to us by Cavener’s sculptures? Empathy. By spending time with her animals, whereby allowing them to enter our psychological domains, we are subtly increasing our empathic connections with other sentient mammals. And in the end, we just might behave ourselves in a more civilized, compassionate manner.