Tuesday, February 4, 2014

God is my Manager

This piece I wrote on artist Ali Cavanaugh originally ran in the St. Austin Review.

I'm republishing it here for two reasons: 1. to convince my readers to subscribe to the StAR, and 2. because Ali is an amazing person, and she recently passed along to me some ideas about Acting and the Faith, which I hope to post here in the next few days.

Hope you enjoy it!

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Painting by Ali Cavanaugh

“God is my manager,” Ali Cavanaugh said to me as we sat at a charming restaurant in the French colonial town of Ste. Genevieve, Missouri, about an hour south of St. Louis.
“He’s my manager, and I’m not kidding.  He manages my career.  I give Him that job and He takes it.  I ask Him to work on the hearts of those who should buy my art, of those who should book my work in galleries, and then I forget about it.  
“This makes rejection much easier to handle,” she adds.  “I submitted to three shows this spring, and did not get included in any of them.  But I honestly don’t worry about that.  God’s in charge of that.  He’s out there while I work in the studio.”
And while God’s out there – who’s “in here” with Ali?
“I have different statues of the Blessed Mother, to have her presence around me as I’m creating.  She’s in the studio – right there with me and the kids and the work.”
Ali Cavanaugh’s studio is in her home in this small Mississippi River town.  She and her husband Brett are raising four children, from age seventeen to a newborn.  Brett works outside the home during the day, while Ali tends the kids and paints.
Her paintings – which are a kind of fresco - watercolor on top of a cream colored clay surface - have won international acclaim, and Mrs. Cavanaugh is actually quite a celebrity in the art world.  And yet she would strike you as she struck me – a normal, sane, caring woman with a light behind her eyes and a great devotion to Jesus through Mary.
As you can see by touring her website, alicavanaugh.com, the light behind Ali’s eyes also shows up in her work.  Light and its clarity seem to spring forth from her pictures, which are figure studies of her daughter Niamh – an Irish name that means “light” or “brilliance”.  The eyes of her figures, though rarely shown, shine with this same mysterious brilliance.
“People always say to me, ‘There’s just something happening in your work’,” Ali observes.  “That’s just the Holy Spirit they’re sensing,” she says.  “And the influence of the Blessed Mother, who led me to the surface – to the light.”
Ali’s journey of faith – her journey to the light - begins when she was a Baptist.  After marrying Brett, who was a nominal Catholic, the couple moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, to be in the midst of the art community there.  The statues, artwork and architecture of the old churches in Santa Fe captivated Ali, who decided to enter RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation for Adults – at her local parish, and become Catholic.  
“I wanted to be Catholic without concern for doctrines,” Ali says.  “And the RCIA I attended was very helpful in that regard.  I was told that contraception and abortion and other moral teachings could be safely ignored.  And that’s not why I was becoming Catholic anyway.
“What drew me to the Catholic Church was the beauty of its art – which seemed inexhaustible to me.”
She adds: “I didn’t realize that there was this whole world that was inexhaustible.”
This was a world that Ali discovered – as many American Catholics do – through EWTN.  And she discovered EWTN because of her work as an artist.
With the help of a mentor in Santa Fe, Ali began to look at her work more from a business perspective.  Changing her medium so that her work could be displayed on a surface that need not be covered by glass was the catalyst that suddenly skyrocketed her career.  Before 2006, her work was with oils, heavy and dark.  But as soon as she switched to her new technique of watercolor on clay, everything “lightened up”.  She won seven commissions from her displays at the Affordable Art Fair in New York City in 2006.   “You were a rock star!” the rep for that fair told Ali.  “Everyone was freaking out about your paintings!”  She now works full time in her studio, and is still backlogged, struggling to catch up with existing orders.
Another piece by Ali.
Ali, who was a photography minor in college, works from photos when she paints.  “The great thrill for me is taking the pictures – that’s where the inspiration and the composition happens.  That’s where I see the way the light plays, that’s where the excitement is.”
But the perspiration that follows the inspiration is the detail work of painting from these pictures.  “I use the smallest brush there is,” Ali says, “and the work can be quite isolating and lonely.  If it weren’t for EWTN Radio, I’d be lost.”
Ali listens to EWTN Radio streaming on her computer, as she – and the Blessed Mother – work every day in her studio – during the baby’s naps and at night when her husband comes home.
“The best of the best are on the radio,” Ali exclaims.  And it was this ongoing catechesis that made sense of the Catholic Church for her after her lukewarm conversion and heterodox RCIA.  
Ali notes, “This all lines up with my more serious conversion.  My career, my conversion, and my relationship with the Blessed Mother – they all go together.”
Ali concludes, “There was never a time when the Church did not wholeheartedly support the arts.  To have true beauty, you have to operate in truth.  But I see so many artists wasting their time on things that are pure evil.”
Ali finished her lunch and we walked out onto the streets of this old town, founded by French Catholics almost three hundred years ago, a town whose main features are a beautiful old Church and a number of antique shops featuring arts and crafts.
“For art to be true, your heart has to be with God,” Ali says.
Perhaps this is the real light that shines out through Ali’s work.  

For more information, visit www.alicavanaugh.com .

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