et yourself for a moment be lured into Ali Cavanaugh’s watery world of floating babies and whispering nymphs and you might be lulled into thinking that here is a painter who has remained remarkably untouched by the sometimes less than loveliness of modern life. Even her portraits of young cancer survivor, Milly, capture a beauty and ease in her own skin that are infused with light.
But don’t be fooled.
Cavanaugh is no stranger to either loss or loneliness. Nor even depression. It’s what she’s made of the trials of her life, how her experiences have deepened her already sensitive art-making, that makes her story and her paintings so compelling.
Deep into the final editing stages of her soon-to-be-released art book, Modern Fresco Paintings, Ali took time out to talk with me over the phone and spoke candidly about the pitfalls of producing for collectors and catering to galleries, the reality of struggling to support oneself as a painter full-time, weathering her husband’s cancer diagnosis and her own postpartum depression, and the wisdom she has received from children, her own most of all, who appear frequently throughout her work.
INTERVIEW WITH MODERN FRESCO PAINTER, ALI CAVANAUGH
Sainte Genevieve, Missouri ~
Deanna Phoenix Selene: I appreciate you making the time for this interview, Ali. I know your schedule is super tight with your book coming out. What has it been like working on such a project?
Ali Cavanaugh: My life right now is that book. It’s crazy. Unicorn Publishing contacted me, saying they would like to do this art book, so I’ve been selecting which paintings I want to include, and I have more than 500 paintings, so…a lot of work. The publisher had to come up here to Sainte Genevieve and we had to lay them all out and narrow it down to 200. And then we had to come up with some sort of order, which is a challenge because my work took a major change in 2015. My pre-2015 work looks so much different than my newer stuff.
And then I had to write an essay about my process, which is not easy because I’m not a writer, so the editing process itself… I’m looking at those paragraphs right now, the ones the editor has sent back for my approval, and you know those paragraphs no longer sound like me. So now I have to send them back and say, “Let’s go back to my original voice.” But I’m excited about the book, and I’m really excited about the foreword written by Daniel Madman. I cannot wait to share that with people, it’s a work of art in itself.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You are very much guided by your intuition, aren’t you?
Ali Cavanaugh: Yes. I don’t have a set formula. I just try to keep it reaI. I am inspired by life and the people in my life. I don’t go looking for people. The subject will just be there, and that moment when the light is a certain way, their body is in this beautiful composition… I just usually take a quick cellphone shot right then and there.
Ali Cavanaugh: There is just not enough time in the day and year, and there’s so many things I want to get to and so many ideas…2018 is already scheduled through. I wonder when am I going to start this new body of work and these new concepts I’ve been carrying around in my head? I have all these images captured…
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Are you eventually able to get to them all?
Ali Cavanaugh: In years past, they have not all come to fruition, but the ones that needed to did, I guess.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: At the same time you’re juggling all the responsibilities of motherhood, which I imagine informs your art.
Ali Cavanaugh: I have 17 years in between my oldest and youngest daughter. My oldest is married and has a baby. She’s 19 years old and lives down the road, and I babysit a lot. Her little girl is best buddies with my youngest daughter. I consider my granddaughter mine, she’s mine but someone else is raising her (laughs). I have a vast amount of experience there with those different age groups, a lot of different experiences happening in my life every day.
We live in a tiny little town, its quiet here but full of life, this little town. Sainte Genevieve is just 4,500 people. A historical little town with a lot of cool artists and writers, most of them transplants. Reminds me of what Santa Fe (New Mexico) was like, where we lived before.
It’s like the clocks have been turned back to the 50s: Kids just run around wherever they like. My 15-year-old, he can be out riding his bike and skateboard and be gone all day, and I tell him, “I won’t start worrying about you until 10 o’clock.” And so the kids are all out running free, and it’s like a different world here.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: You mean to tell me teenagers aren’t on their phones and in their rooms on their computers all day?
Ali Cavanaugh: (laughs) When we moved here form Santa Fe, my daughter had culture shock. Before, all our friends, the culture there, was so diverse, and then we moved here, just one town over from where I grew up, and everyone here is Catholic and looks like her. Not the same as the way she was raised at all. It was just very bizarre for her. There are some things she doesn’t like about it, and I understand, but she gets to be free. Here, kids all hang out together, they all go down to the levy. You just don’t see that anymore in other parts of this country.
Life here is very simple. It’s just day in and day out, simple things.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: That’s reflected in the clean, uncluttered aesthetic of your work, which brings to mind for me the work of Finnish fashion designer, Marimekko. That minimalistic, graphic punch. The strong patterns.
The Thought Was Intended to Restore Bliss | 24 x 24 | Ali Cavanaugh
Girl With Pineapple Earring | Ali Cavanaugh
Finland’s famous fashion design line, Marimekko
Ali Cavanaugh: Well, I originally found my inspiration through the lens of pop art, so thank you, that’s a huge compliment!
I grew up on a 20-acre family farm in rural Missouri. I raised chickens, we had cows… I had 2 sisters and an older brother, and we had so much fun together! Because we had no choice, we just had each other, right? So if we wanted entertainment, we had to develop our own acting skills.
In 7th grade, when I entered middle school, loneliness set in. But I had access to fashion magazines. So I would wallpaper my whole room with them. I loved the composition: the bold, dynamic contrast, the simplicity, the unexpected compositions… All of that felt very natural to me. And because of my hearing loss, I have to be completely focused on a person when I’m talking to them. I hear only the fourth word, but I can put it all together by watching them. I think fashion photography just clicked with me. It captures the composition of the human form.
Ali Cavanaugh: I just intuitively respond to certain compositions and light. I see things more through the eye of a camera than a human eye. I think it’s that early influence of fashion photography.
Andy Warhol was my first obsession as an artist because of that simple visual impact he had in his work that validated the feelings I had and wanted to capture and paint.
Ali Cavanaugh: But it’s also my connection to others and the beauty I see inside of them, that unseen presence when they’re going into thought or when they’re speaking and then they pause.
When I’m working with a model, that thing that initially brought me to them…I have to take them back to that place. I’m able to enter into that presence that you can’t really see but you feel. Children are great like that.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What a gift! Allowing others to be truly seen. Capturing their essence and then reflecting that back to them.
Ali Cavanaugh: I’ve been doing portraits since I was a teenager. My oldest daughter was my first model, and she took me till she left for college. Then I turned to my youngest daughter and entered into this whole new era with children: my oldest daughter is graceful but painfully shy. Guarded, but beautiful.
My youngest daughter looks a lot like her but she’s this open fairy and happy.
She doesn’t need any special toys to play. Her hands are her kitty cats. My oldest is clean and modern but her emotion is still there. You don’t have to paint their faces to get their emotion; it’s coming off of their bodies.
I’ve had this transitional period with my youngest daughter; with her I’m painting completely differently. That’s where my water pieces have come in. I’m just letting it be freeform and spontaneous. I put the paint down and let it surprise me, let it harness some things and let others be. That’s where my art is going these days.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: I have a print of one of my favorites of yours on my wall, Steep. Is that a portrait of one of your daughters?
Ali Cavanaugh: Steep is a close friend’s daughter. Her name is Wren. Her eyes are so huge ~ they remind me of a cow’s. You know how cows have the most precious eyes?
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes. I’m picturing you capturing the essence of everyone who enters your home…
Ali Cavanaugh: (laughs softly) Yes, basically every kid who comes into my house ends up in my studio. I feel bad when there’s just one kid I’m really feeling, while others I’m not feeling so much.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Oh no! How do you handle that? Do your friends get their feelings hurt if you photograph one friend’s child and not the other’s?
Ali Cavanaugh: I just photograph everyone. It’s just a small fraction that ever ends up getting painted. But I think I may go back someday to some of them…like my oldest daughter…
Deanna Phoenix Selene: In the video that Alvaro Aro made about you, “Ali’s World,” you describe being inspired to paint Milly, a 15-year-old girl fighting a rare and aggressive form of cancer, how you waited a year for the opportunity to paint her. What a powerful experience that must have been, for both of you. How old is Milly now?
Ali Cavanaugh: She is 27. Working in China doing stand-up comedy now. Her family ~ they’re all actors and performers and musicians ~ that’s her roots. She decided to go to China to teach and to get material for her comedy, so she works with little children and she’s doing the comedy circuit in Beijing and learning Chinese. She reminds me a lot of Greta Gershwin who directed Lady Bird.
She also reminds me of the comedian, Tig Notaro. When Tig found out she had cancer, she was in shock, so she just went out and free-styled and just started taking about her cancer, and it was just awesome.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: I will look her up! Is Milly now cancer free?
Ali Cavanaugh: Yeah, her last treatment, her last chemo, was when she was 18. She’s 10 years out now.
Right after my show of the paintings I did of Milly as she was going through chemo, I found out I was pregnant. That December, when I was 9 month pregnant, my husband got diagnosed with cancer.
It was really interesting, I kind of knew when I was painting Milly, maybe it is that law of attraction, but I had that feeling like, “Oh, cancer is going to hit my family too.”
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Your sensitivity, your awareness, becomes heightened.
Ali Cavanaugh: Yes… When he was diagnosed, I was like, “I don’t want you to die on me.” And, “How am I going to raise this baby on my own?”
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How did that affect your painting when all of this was going on?
Right after we found out my husband had cancer, Malachy was born. Two days later, my husband started chemo. When something like that happens, you just go into shock, you’re just going through life in this sort of surreal way.
I felt like I was being carried, I wasn’t thinking, couldn’t think about anything. I had a show to put together. I had so many hours of painting I needed to put in to meet my deadline, at the same time I was caring for a newborn and scheduling appointments for my husband’s chemo.
Ali Cavanaugh: The baby was born on January 7th, and I had a show on May 5th.
I had to produce 25 paintings in 5 months with a newborn and a husband in chemo. The schedule was already set, the paintings were already planned, I didn’t have to think about it, I just had to breastfeed while I painted. It was kind of a blessing, because if you think about things too much, you’re just going to go down, so I was just working, working, working.
But then when, two years later, right before I gave birth to Saoirse, my husband got blood clots, I didn’t do so well.
I got postpartum depression after Saoirse.
Ali Cavanaugh: So I know what that is like when you can’t hold it together any longer, when it just all comes down on top of you. You just bottom out, you become an empty shell.
There are people you can call, people who are there for you, but inside your head you are alone.
I feel for people who struggle with that every single day, whether it’s mental illness or a crisis that leads to total despair. It’s the worst, absolutely the worst.
Ali Cavanaugh: And I could never have the empathy for that if I had not gone through it myself. In that way, it’s been a gift. I have great empathy for others struggling with depression.
Ali Cavanaugh: Luckily, I’ve worked my way out of that slowly. But I’ve never been the same after Saoirse’s birth. I can’t manage things like I used to be able to. I can’t do that anymore. I have to go at a lot slower pace now. I get through, I just have to be very forgiving with myself.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Yes. You learn how to relate to yourself differently. You accept your limitations.
Ali Cavanaugh: Yeah. You have to work with what you have and you have to not think that everyone’s judging you. I’m not perfect, the world isn’t perfect, and you just get through, minute by minute, and you surround yourself with those who love you, and eliminate all the B.S., and pare your life down to what is really important.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Tell me about what happened when your work changed dramatically. What sort of response did you get?
Ali Cavanaugh: All my gallery relationships changed. In 2014, I had 11 galleries representing me throughout the world. When my work changed from my portraits of my older daughter to the clean water babies I began painting, it wasn’t the same work to them, the older galleries didn’t want the newer work. But Instagram didn’t take off until I started doing the newer work.
The newer water babies severed my relationships with galleries. But my Instagram blew up with my work. I had so many portrait commissions! It was a blessing because by then there was no more curiosity for me with what I had been doing. But the galleries cannot handle change.
With galleries, you have collectors and they know what to expect from you, so there’s pressure to stick to your same body of work. So you’re making the same thing over and over, and then once everyone is done collecting it, then what are you going to do? Galleries also don’t like to see portrait work ~ it’s too specific, too personal.
The Baby Boomers were the collectors. They were the ones with the big houses that needed art to fill their walls. Now the Generation Xers are struggling just trying to get their kids through college. The Millennials are minimalists ~ they are not into stuff, they not into acquiring things. Their whole existence is about their phone, so just to get that picture on their phone is ownership enough. Meanwhile, the Baby Boomers are not collecting anymore; they’re downsizing.
There’s always going to be collectors, but now there are more artists and now art is more accessible.
The “immersed series” I’m doing now which I began in 2015 with my youngest daughter has created a huge following on social media. I only need to do a few commissions a year now to make the same kind of money as I made when I was selling 60 paintings a year through a gallery.
Also, you no longer have to go to an art school to become an artist. Now, it’s kids who are as young as 13 or 15, and if they have the talent and the drive, there’s nothing stopping them. People used to pay a lot of money to go to art school to learn what kids are learning now on YouTube. I think there’s going to be a collapse of art schools.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: The economic side of art-making and selling is very tricky, isn’t it?
Ali Cavanaugh: People say, “Oh my gosh, you’re so talented, will you paint this for me?” But they don’t want to pay more than $200 or $300.
People see the price tag on a work of art in a gallery and they think, “Wow, that’s great! You can make real money doing that!” but if you put it on paper…
I would urge every serious artist to get a business degree and then you can punch in the numbers and see how you’re being taken advantage of. You need a business degree to learn how to make minimum wage.
How many businesses do you know where they get all of their stock for free? Everyone takes advantage of the artist.
We need art, but when it comes down to it, people don’t really want to pay for it. I mentor a lot of high schools and college and career artists ~ the older ones have been in it for 10, maybe 20 years, and they ask me, “Why am I always in this same rut?” “Why am I not making any money?” The younger ones don’t believe it.
You just have to really dedicate yourself and work really, really hard. But even when you get to the top, there’s not stable money.
You paint because that’s the thing you love to do. If you love the work, you have to do the work and show up every single day, even if it means sometimes you will have to beg the people around you for food.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What changes need to happen? How can we do this differently?
Ali Cavanaugh: I think it’s about educating people that when you purchase art you’re getting a piece of that person.
Ali Cavanaugh: Artists are doing work that changes people’s lives and it’s very meaningful. To me, that is worth more than money and security. I’m doing what I wanted to do. I’m using the gift that I was given. I’m trying to elevate, not objectify. I try to paint each person with love and care and tenderness. I can sleep at night.
Ali Cavanaugh: I have now found a balance. I’m no longer a slave to the galleries and I can be as curious as I want to be. Commissions are a whole other ball game: I love working with children and what I love more than everything is when we do the Big Reveal, and everyone is crying, and you’re saying, “This is how I see this special person in your life,” and they’re saying, “Oh wow, you’ve captured their essence.” And the children they grow up but you’ve forever captured this time in their life when they were so pure, so open…
Ali Cavanaugh (American, b. 1973) is an internationally represented fine artist. She studied painting at Kendall College of Art and Design and the New York Studio Residency Program in New York City, earning a BFA from Kendall College of Art and Design in 1995. At the age of 22, she co-founded an atelier, The New School Academy of Fine Art, in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She relocated to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 2001. It was during her six years in Santa Fe that she developed her modern fresco process on kaolin clay. Her paintings have been the subject of numerous national and international solo and group exhibitions. She has painted portraits for TIME magazine and The New York Times. Her work is featured in more than 400 private and corporate collections throughout North America, Europe, Asia, and Australia. She currently lives just outside St Louis, Missouri with her husband and their four children.