46 Beth Cavener

Beth Cavener is an amazing ceramics sculptor from Helena, Montana. Her work has been collected by museums throughout the US. She's been featured in magazines like Ceramics Monthly, Clay Times, Ceramic Art & Perception, Sculpture, and others. She's been a guest artist in residence in Japan, China, Italy, and various places throughout the US. She's won the Virginia Groot Foundation first prize and grant, a US Artists' Grant, and fellowships from the Artist Trust, Pottery Northwest, and the Ohio Arts Council. She's also helped found a ceramics studio, called Studio 720, in Helena, MT for herself and other ceramicists.

'Confessions & Convictions'

Beth states on her website:

"Primitive animal instincts lurk in our own depths, waiting for the chance to slide past a conscious moment. The sculptures I create focus on human psychology, stripped of context and rationalization, and articulated through animal and human forms. On the surface, these figures are simply feral and domestic individuals suspended in a moment of tension. Beneath the surface, they embody the consequences of human fear, apathy, aggression, and misunderstanding.

"Both human and animal interactions show patterns of intricate, subliminal gestures that betray intent and motivation. 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.

"I want to pry at those uncomfortable, awkward edges between animal and human. Entangled in their own internal and external struggles, the figures express frustration for the human tendency towards cruelty and lack of understanding. Something conscious and knowing is captured in their gestures and expressions.

"An invitation and a rebuke."

'Run', 2006

Beth states in this short documentary by Bas Berkhout (2015):

"I use animal bodies to encapsulate some sort of human emotion or idea. These are portraits of people. There's parts of their bodies that don't belong there, if they're animals, there's collar bones, there's belly buttons . . . plus just the gestures and the way they're expressing myself is completely off-kilter with anything that's more primal. It's all very self-conscious and self-reflective . . . I might take an emotion like fear or aggression. And I'll spend a whole two year period designing maybe six to eight different characters that are all dealing with fear and aggression but in their own really private ways."

In Gessato (2012) Beth says that, while all her sculptures are actually portraits of people, they are also, partially, self-portraits, because they are filtered through her perceptions and are products of her self-reflection. Some of the people she portrays are ones she's known all her life, while others are strangers she met for all of five minutes, or who even passed a single glance.


"A lot of my work is about loneliness, it's one of those darker places that I'm comfortable with, even though I'm not happy when I'm there. But, sometimes being lonely is easier than being scared . . . The people who are close to me worry about the amount of time I spend inside of my own head, and obsessing about my own loneliness or feelings of depression or anxiety, or self-doubt, that I'm not good enough, that my work isn't good enough, I don't like the way I look. You know, all those things. And I really tear myself apart over them. But, that tearing myself apart is part of understanding and eventually coming to peace with it."

"I mean, asking why are you lonely isn't a very good question. Asking why you haven't formed a more intimate relationship with your partner, or why you push this particular person away, those are better questions, and then deeper and deeper and deeper."

"Like most people I have a lot of secrets…..ones that devour me a little bit every day. Making these sculptures is my way of fighting them off…of pleading with you ,the viewer, to see past the surface, and tread softly. I feel like I see the same thing mirrored every day in the slightest unconscious gestures of the people around me. I am drawn to those hidden feelings. .I keep wanting to peel back the layers of cruelty and apathy that seem to foster this silence and say, “stop this. it doesn’t make any sense”. Sometimes I think of my sculptures as emotional reliquaries. I pack all these thoughts inside them, so that I don’t have to carry it around all by myself."

'The Question That Devours', 2012

Beth was born in Pasadena, California, but her family moved often, going to Massachusetts, Georgia, New York, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Montana and now Washingotn. She says in this interview for Gessato (2012):

"we moved every two years of my life, all the way up until high school. I was always in different schools, which meant I would always be the outsider, the stranger. In response, I developed a defense mechanism in order to classify people into groups in order to figure out how I fit into that situation — more subconsciously than consciously. Since I was a child at the time, these categories were defined in terms of animals, because all the picture books I read categorized human behavior this way. You know, the pigs are this human character type, the wolves are this other type. I’m interested now in what that says about the person making the distinctions rather than the animal being personified."

Beth's father was a biologist and her mother, Nancy Jacobsohn, was a sculptor, who taught her to work with clay from her early childhood. She talks more about her childhood in Berkhout's interview (2015):

"From my earliest memories I wanted to be a scientist, I wanted to just be like my dad. And, he taught me from a really early age to ask questions, over and over again, and taught me that that was an intelligent way to dissect the world."

'A Safe Place', 2018

On her webpage she talks about going to university:

"I also started out in the sciences…I was a triple major in Physics, Astronomy and Fine arts up through my senior year as an undergraduate.  The reason that I gave up my studies to be an astrophysicist is that a very kind and concerned mentor sat down with me and told me, quite plainly, that I would have to work twice as hard just to be mediocre (I am number dislexic…not a good trait for a field every with practical math).  It was hard to hear.  I really loved science, but the thought of not being able to …well, for lack of a better word, “shine” in my field was unappealing, to say the least.  So, I threw myself into my artwork.  It was a bit late, and I was driven with a misguided urge to prove myself, if you know what I mean.  I worked really hard….and I was still not very good.  Fortunately, I was stubborn.

"I worked for three years in my basement studio after I had graduated.  I tried to teach myself, and I  made a lot of bad work.  But someone once told me that you have to make at least 10 really terrible works to get to the one mediocre one, and 20 mediocre pieces to get to something not-bad, and 40 of those….you can see where this is going.  I feel like I am still in the mediocre numbers. I am still just as stubborn."

'Sentimental Question', 2012

Beth explains her art making process and methods here:

"I spend the first several weeks or months of a new body of work writing about my ideas and creating 20 or more 3-D thumbnail sketches and maquettes for the main characters that revolve around a central theme for the exhibition.  The size, shape, atmosphere, location, and culture of the exhibition space plays a key role in how the bodies of these 6-8 figures will occupy the gallery environment.  The way in which they interact with each other and the viewers becomes an important part of how the pieces are designed: scale, color, gesture, and architectural interaction."

Beth says (Berkhout, 2015): "The process I've created is something that I love. It's intense it's over the top. It's probably largely unnecessary, but it's how I enjoy thinking and working through these questions that were the basis for the pieces in the first place."

'Tangled Up in You', 2014

Beth prefers using oil clay to sculpt smaller studies. She says:

"My favorite oil clay is the J-MAC® Classic ® Clay AB 200 and  can  be  found  pretty easily  on  the  web . . . I  know  that  most  folks  really dislike  working  with  oil  clay  as  opposed  to  water  clay,  but  this  stuff  is really  easy  and  pleasant to  work  with-  virtually  no  odor  and  soft  on  the  hands  without  feeling  too oily. You can use a  heat  gun  for  softening  the  surface  or  a  small  butane  torch  for  spot  heating  and sticking  pieces  together  as  well. I do not use mineral spirits to  soften  the  oil  clay  because  I  don’t  want  to  deal  with  the  fumes.  I do work  with  the  oil  clay  wearing  Nitrile  gloves,  so  that  I  can  switch  to  having  clean  hands  immediately.    It is non-toxic, but I do find  it  difficult  to  switch  to water-based clay without worrying  about the residue."

'Empire of Dust', 2006

"After the final maquette is put together, another 1-2 weeks is spent designing a pipe armature that will support the figure as effortlessly as possible in order to allow the most dynamic range of gesture and expression.  Part of that design means incorporating pipe joints into corresponding anatomical pivot points.  This way the solid mass of clay can still be moved and articulated during the sculpting process (ie: a joint in the neck so the head can be turned, joints in the shoulders and hips to allow for further articulation of the torso, etc). The armatures for the limbs (front and back legs) are made from a single wooden dowel, covered in electrical tape and bent at each joint.  This simple armature is then covered in a clay coil and added to the body."

Beth then sculpts her final, full sized models over the steel and wood armature.

'Through an Empty Place', 2017

The clay she uses for her finished work is special as well:

"For the past 18 years, I have relied on a cone 6-10 commercial clay called Soldate 60 from Aardvark Clayand Supplies. This clay was originally formulated by Joe Soldate in Southern California as a Raku body and is an EXCELLENT sculpture body: incredible plasticity, an unparalleled green strength for building large forms, versatility working back and forth between a pliable wet and structural leather hard state, and an ability to withstand high thermal shock. There is a similar product with the same name available from Laguna, but it is missing the key fireclay component that makes it so incredibly strong, plastic, and crack resistant as the Aardvark version.  Its a fairly straightforward body:

50%  Lincoln Fireclay*
25%  OM4 Ball Clay
25%  60 Mesh Sand
2.5%  Custer Feldspar.

* A certain percentage of the Fireclay,  “Greenstripe,” adds a crucial plasticity and green-strength to the body, but has also been known to contain lime contamination. One disadvantage of this clay is also its massive shrinkage rate. From out-of-the-bag wet to fired cone 6, I have measured approximately 18% shrinkage. This means I have to build my pieces 15-20% larger than I envision the finished work – a large part of the engineering that I go through with each piece is due to this shrinkage and the complexities of a form that is going to change so much during the process."

'I Am No One', 2006

Once her pieces are fully sculpted, she cuts them into sections, removing them from the armature. She hollows out each piece and then fires them separately in her kiln:

"With very few exceptions, I choose to fire my sculptures in sections.  This allows me the greatest flexibility in adjusting the gesture of the legs, arms, ears, and even tilt of the head when the piece is stable, fired, and I can see and install it in the correct position.  This level of control is almost impossible to do when the piece is wet and hollow, so reassembling the piece afterwards allows me the most freedom as a sculptor.

"It is important to mention that in order to move these pieces safely before they are fired, I load the pieces into the kiln in the wet-leather hard stage.  This way, the pieces can handle the stresses of being moved inside the kiln, and any repairs, adjustments or final touches are still possible. When loading the kiln, if using an electric oval (see Kilns below), I remove all the rings, leaving just the floor of the kiln.  I then line the sculpture up next to the kiln floor on an adjustable height cart, so that the cart and kiln shelf surface are dead even.  The sculpture is then gently slid onto the kiln shelf (using a layer of newspaper, cardboard, and white silicone sand underneath to help it glide smoothly).

'The Sanguine II', 2010

"Although my clay body (Soldate 60) can easily go beyond cone 10, cone 2 is sufficiently strong for sculpture (barely starting the glassificiation), and it allows me to have a more porous surface for the desired patina.  The lower temperature also allows for easier grinding and resurfacing, as well as avoiding an additional 5% shrinkage. The sculpture is loaded in the kiln wet with shrink slab. It dries in the kiln with the lid closed at *least* 48 hours – preferably a week."

'Kept', 2015

Once fired, Beth assembles all the pieces together, using various epoxies. Beth uses, of all things, a Martha Stewart line of latex paint for her sculptures. She says,

"I am very particular about using a very high quality flat interior latex paint. If you look at a high quality can of flat interior latex, you will notice that 99% of the materials in that can of paint are calcined clay and other ceramic materials. So, in essence, I am using an unfired slip on the surfaces of my work… which gives me a beautiful clay-like matte feel to the sculpture. This way I can cover the seams of the reassembled fired sections – enabling me to work with much more freedom of gesture and scale than would otherwise be possible for my modest studio and kiln setup – without losing the soft and sensual feel of clay or the immediacy of the rough marks on the surface."

'Noli Me Tangere', 2005

A big source of learning and inspiration for Beth's work comes this article by artist Pete Pinnell, a writer for Clay Times Magazine (2020).

In her interview for Gessato (2012), she explains why she prefers working in clay:

"I have worked in other materials briefly…mostly in graduate school, where I spent 10 weeks building with sticks and wire; 8 months working with robotic sculpture; a quarter welding with steel; another quarter using fall leaves and tree resin to construct a burrow 15 feet square, filling my studio to the top of the walls; and another very long stint working with molds: casting in paper, resin, rubber, wax, plaster, and bronze. All of these materials divorced me in some way from the fluidity of expression that I had grown dependent on in clay. Although they all centered around aspects of construction and therefore the tactile sense, they seemed very separate from the touch of my hands…more of an intellectual exercise."

'Such Great Heights' 2007

"I enjoyed all those processes immensely…and still do! I still use quite a bit of metal fabrication as support for my work, and occasionally there are some other elements like sugar, fabric, wood, found objects, and mechanical bits that find their way into my images. But mostly I am focused in the clay. It is my first language, and the one that is ultimately the most satisfying. Clay is so much like flesh. When I’m working with it, it’s as close as you can get to molding another person’s body. It responds to touch, it remembers your fingers… everything about it is so sensual. Creating a human form (which, again, is essentially what I’m doing) out of any other material feels like secondary translation. Although I love working, for example, with metals – the way that they change over time and react to the environment; other media will always be supplementary."

'L'Amante', 2012

In Gessato, Beth further explains why she chose her particular animals:

"When I was in graduate school, I decided to make the shift into using animal forms. But I was worried about doing it because there are so many animals and cultural associations with particular species – how would I establish developed characters if I used a random animal every time? So I chose three distinct animals that would embody three different personality types: the victim, the bully, and the manipulator. At the time I chose the hare, the wild boar, and the goat to represent those three character types. They were way over-simplified, but it was fun to subvert that – how could I make a manipulative victim? Or a bully-manipulator? Since then, as the characters and my ideas have evolved, I have settled on 4 favorite archetypes, represented by the Hare, the Goat, the Wolf, and The Beast (an amalgamation of a prehistoric horse, tapir, hippo, and capybara!)"

'Trapped', 2015

In this interview with Garth Clark (2015), Beth explains 'Trapped':

"It's a lot about how, again, the human tendency toward self-destruction; that the very support systems in your relationships, in your lives, tend to be the ones that you tear apart and blame for the external circumstances that are going wrong in your life. So, although there's this very clear setup of the snare that's holding her back and cutting off the circulation to her foot, and holding her in this panic position, she's chewing off the wrong leg. The leg that contains that sign of commitment . . . so instead of seeing it as a source of strength, she sees it as the trap, instead of the obvious mechanism that's holding her in place." In fact, the wedding ring that the fox wears on its paw is Beth's own, from her first marriage. She melted it down and recast it to fit the fox. "For me there was no greater way of, in some way, honoring my understanding of the situation than imbuing it with something deeply meaningful to me. So, having seen myself in this position over and over again, and finally to a point at which it ended destroying a relationship in my life, I had to create a memorial, a beautiful and poignant memorial to that, and then give her a part of myself, which was this wedding ring."

'Forgiveness', 2015

Beth explains 'Forgiveness' (Clark, 2015):

"This piece here, the snow leopard, is a new character for me. I really wanted to investigate a feminine and masculine character that was very ambiguous, but very sensual and alluring and powerful. And this piece is called 'Forgiveness' . .  with very deep irony, and the idea that forgiveness is a thing that's incredibly hard to attain. The things that cause us pain that are dangerous, as embodied by this wasps nest are things we can't leave alone, that we keep striking, pulling apart, being drawn to over and over again, despite the fact that we're trying to leave it behind."

'Anywhere But Here', 2010

"There's an optimism in a lot of my pieces, that if I could distill these moments down in my own life in a more conscious way, if we all could do that, then these problems in this most simple and direct way seem so obvious, the ways we should deal with things, the way that we should see things, the way we should empathize and respect one another. They seem painfully obvious in these works and so the whole point of me making them is trying to see things clearly, trying to make myself and others understood."

'The Melancholic', 2010

"I think in order to truly understand and empathize with someone you have to become a part of them. And so that's what happens in each of these. I start with a very specific portrait of someone that I know. And then, as I crawl inside of their minds, or at least my perception of who they are, I become them, and so the portrait becomes a very tangled and mixed portrait of the two of us . . . "

'The Choleric', 2010

Beth gives this advice to students on her website:

"If I had anything to offer in the way of advice to someone I haven’t ever met about such things, it would be this:  First, that moment of brutal honesty…have an unbiased mentor from another field in the art department come and talk to you about your work………and then, it is a lot…and I mean a lot of work.  And I think for most people, it is also a lot of failure and disappointment too.  I am still wading through plenty of that.  I am always a little surprised when someone asks,”how did you become fluent with the figure?” and I tell them:

"In undergraduate, I spent 6 hours a day working from the model.  That after each 3 hour session, I was made to throw away my drawing/painting/sculpture and start over.  I didn’t ever keep any of those studies or finish them and we never got around to “expressing our ideas”.  It was boring and awful, and I almost dropped out several times.  6 hours a day, five days a week, for four years, and I still only received a BA.  When I got out of school, I bought a small kiln and blew up everything I tried to fire, bcause I didn’t know what I was doing.  I was pretty frustrated, I guess.  But what surprises me, is when I tell people I had to go through all of that in order to make the things I make now, they still think I am hiding something.  But, honestly….I don’t have any especially nifty anatomy books, or clay tools, or any secrets.  I had a dawing instructor once who told me, after looking a particularly bad drawing of mine, that if I made a thousand more marks on the paper, one of them was bound to be true.  Heh…it pissed me off at the time, but I still love that comment.  Best advice anyone ever gave me."

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'Obariyon', 2013

'Luce Danzante', 2013

'please', 2006

'Committed', 2015

'Second Kind of Loneliness', 2012

'Your Eyes Have Their Silence', 2009

'Humiliation by Design', 2009

'Megrim' 2005

'Diminuendo' 2008

'In Bocca Lupo', 2012

'White Hind', 2012