A painter of pure, radiant happiness

Deal W. Hudson

February 14, 2019

Ali Cavanaugh’s figurative art has deep spiritual roots, discovers Deal Hudson

Ali Cavanaugh is a painter in pursuit of the miracle of human existence. A Catholic convert who was received in 2002, she says this of her faith: “The Blessed Mother is my constant and helps me with every step of my journey as a wife, mother and artist.” With that in mind, we should not be surprised that young people, mostly female, inhabit her work, perhaps reflecting the life she leads with her husband and four children in a small town, Ste Genevieve, outside St Louis.

Her orientation towards the visual world began early: Cavanaugh was only two when she contracted spinal meningitis and lost most of her hearing. She calls the loss “a blessing in disguise as I learned to depend on body language and reading lips to communicate”.

Cavanaugh’s reputation has grown rapidly over the last decade. In 2018 she was listed by BuzzFeed at 26 in the “The Top 100 Figurative Painters Working Right Now”. The first collection of her paintings, Ali Cavanaugh: Modern Fresco Paintings, will be released on March 15, following a showing at the Strand Book Store in New York City on the 13th.

Cavanaugh’s medium is a modern version of fresco. Prompted by her delight in the “mirror finish” after laying plaster on walls, she discovered kaolin clay, a soft, absorbent surface that lasts a long time. After some experimentation, she exhibited her first group of paintings at a NYC gallery in January 2007. They sold out immediately and her career took off after that. By 2014, Cavanaugh was being exhibited by 10 galleries in the US and abroad, and she had been commissioned by Time magazine to paint Taylor Swift.

Modern Fresco Paintings is arranged chronologically from 2007 to 2018. At the front of the book, Cavanaugh relates her life as a person and an artist. A marvellous essay by Daniel Maidman follows. He describes Cavanaugh’s paintings in terms of happiness: “The elements in her work support her depiction of pure, uncorrupted happiness: sunlight – wind – female youths – contour lines – luminous colour – translucency – symmetry – language – and focus.” I agree. The pictures start with wonder, what she calls “the unique presence of the human person”, and portray those moments when “presence” is made manifest. Cavanaugh’s happiness, frankly, took me by surprise: her depictions of playfulness, innocence and joy are moving and contain no feigned naiveté or self-conscious effort to market herself to an audience weary of a topsy-turvy world.

The first image you see, Listening without hearing (2011), across from the title page, is of a teenage girl with shimmering red hair in profile looking to the right. Her arms, bent at the elbow, have raised her hands palms-outward in front of the left side of the head as if to look away from the viewer. She wears white sock arms: socks starting from above the elbow over her hands, the stripes matching the red of her hair. She wears a modest sleeveless shirt with a slight hint of budding adulthood. She’s a classic beauty, lovely red lips, upturned nose and lashed eyes that look even further away from the viewer. The hair as it falls over her chest has a deeper, sensual, luxuriant red of the woman-to-be. The entire effect is one of innocent modesty, of a young woman comfortable in herself but wanting the freedom of being left alone.

Maidmain again is on target: “She summons happiness not from her figures but from us.” This not the happiness of teenage self-indulgence. Cavanaugh found happiness the hard way: dealing with the burden of childhood deafness and a father who abandoned her and her mother.

Unlike many who are hurt early in life, she does not turn from suffering. After moving to Ste Genevieve, Cavanaugh met Milly, a teenage girl who had “a compelling presence”, in spite of the hair loss and scarring from treatments for severe cancer. After photographing Milly, she waited a year before painting her. These are my favourite paintings in the book regardless of the backstory. This sequence maps the life of a teenage girl. As a father of a 30-year daughter, I recognise the teenager wrestling with the onset of the adult world – the shyness and insecurity, the perk and charm, the creativity and fantasy, the determination to make it through.

Not until the final chapter, “chroma”, do boys enter Cavanaugh’s visual world. This makes me wonder what lies ahead for this brilliant painter, only in her late 40s: what other lives will she explore, what ages and genders? I’m confident that whatever subjects she turns to will be revealed in a way that recognises the good that lies deeply within all of us.

Ali Cavanaugh’s paintings will be shown at the Strand Book Store in New York City on March 13 at 7.30 pm. For more information, visit alicavanaugh.com.

Deal Hudson is the Catholic Herald’s US Arts Editor

By Deal Hudson

Deal W. Hudson was born November 20, 1949 in Denver, CO, to Emmie and Jack Hudson, both native Texans. Dr. Hudson had an older sister Ruth, and eventually, a younger sister, Elizabeth. Emmie Hudson, Ruth Hudson and Elizabeth Hudson now live in Houston, TX; Jack Hudson passed away some years ago. The late Jack Hudson was a captain for Braniff Airlines in Denver at the time of Dr. Hudson’s birth. Later the family moved to Kansas City when his father joined the Federal Aviation Agency. From Kansas City, the Hudson family moved to Minneapolis, then to Massapequa, NY, and finally to Alexandria, VA, where they first occupied a home overlooking the Potomac River adjacent to the Mount Vernon estate. After a year, the family moved to a home on Tarpon Lane a few houses up the street from the Yacht Haven boat docks. Dr. Hudson attended Mt. Vernon Elementary School from grades 4 to 6 and has a special gratitude for the teaching of Mr. Hoppe who first told him was a ‘smart lad.’ Having moved with his family to Fort Worth, TX in 1960, Dr. Hudson attended William Monnig Junior High and Arlington Heights HS. In high school, Dr. Hudson was captain of the golf team, editor of the literary magazine (Guerdon), and performed the role of Peter in the ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ during his senior year. Dr. Hudson graduated cum laude with a major in philosophy from the University of Texas-Austin in 1971 where his undergraduate advisor was Prof. John Silber. His teachers at the University of Texas included Prof. Louis Mackey and Prof. Larry Caroline. Dr. Hudson minored in both classics and English literature. Dr. Hudson lived in Atlanta from 1974-1989, where he attended Emory University, receiving a Phd from the Graduate Institute for the LIberal Arts. He also taught philosophy at Mercer University in Atlanta from 1980-89. In 1989 Dr. Hudson and his family left Atlanta when he was hired to teach philosophy at Fordham University in the Bronx. Dr. Hudson taught at Fordham, and also part-time at New York University, from 1989 to 1994. Dr. Hudson first came to Atlanta in after graduation from Princeton Theological Seminary (PTS) with an M.Div. While at PTS, Dr. Hudson managed the Baptist Student Union at Princeton University and became its first director. Dr. Hudson also was licensed at a minister in the Southern Baptist Convention at Madison Baptist Church in Madison, NJ. Dr. Hudson’s primary area of study at PTS was the history of Christian doctrine which he pursued with Dr. Karlfried Froelich. In 1984 Dr. Hudson was received in the Catholic Church by Msgr. Richard Lopez, with the special permission of Archbishop Thomas A. Donnellan, at the chapel of Our Lady of Perpetual Help Cancer Home in Atlanta. Dr. Hudson has been married twenty-five years to Theresa Carver Hudson and they have two children, Hannah Clare, 23, and Cyprian Joseph (Chip), 15, adopted from Romania when he was three years old. The Hudson family has lived in Fairfax, VA for more than fifteen years, after having lived five years in Bronxville, NY and a year in Atlanta, GA, where Theresa and Deal were married.

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