Henry Cavanagh 

WORKS IN THE EXHIBITION (PART 2)

BIO & ARTIST'S STATEMENT

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GALLERY

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INTERVIEW

by Eveline Levin

 

Henry Cavanagh: Artist. Activist. Entertainer.

 

Straight-shooting activist Henry Cavanagh, 72, was a long time pioneer of the 1960s unique student collective, The Golden Age of New Paltz. Majoring in sculpture and bronze casting, Cavanagh came to SUNY New Paltz in 1964. His next 8 years were not solely about studying art. As the provocative editor of the college publications, the New Paltz Oracle and Abraxis, Cavanagh was one of the driving forces behind student battles against the Vietnam War, censorship of student media, unequal distribution of college funds, sexual assault on campus and many other pressing issues.

 

As a big part of the New Paltz community, what do you think you were trying to accomplish as young art students?

Since art majors and their allies were the most free-spirited segment of college population, we wanted to challenge conformity and liberate the rest of the New Paltz campus and town life. These fights seem very dated and parochial now, but they stirred the entire campus at the time.

 

As a member of the Students for a Democratic Society, you were arrested multiple times for participating in anti-war protests. Why did you get involved?

We were entering a new age. The Vietnam War was heating up. Since people were dying left and right, many started getting into college just to save their lives. It created a real social division between the Greek Life members, who were perceived as more conservative, and liberal arts majors who were less inclined to support the war.

 

You mentioned that Greek life and athletics dominated the college scene. Was there a place where art students felt welcomed?

There was this little hidden bar we called Spinelli’s, where a close-knit art community would gather at night. And while other bars would legally close at midnight, Spinelli's stayed open as long as the crowd wanted it to. With Edith Piaf on the jukebox, people were playing chess, reciting poetry, having spontaneous jam sessions and earth-shattering conversations until 4 a.m. It was a freewheeling, Beat-inspired existence where everyone had something in common, whether it was art, literature, drugs or sex.

 

What were some of the memorable episodes during your college years?

I remember when we occupied the administration buildings and shut down the college for three days in an anti-war protest. We took over the president’s office so many times, they had to put the hinges on the outside, so you could just take the pin and lift the door up without damaging it.

 

How did your experiences affect your artwork?

Can art be political? In theory, art should be eternal, unimpaired by the passing stresses that only cheapen the value of it. But in reality, this idealism wasn’t for me. I had been doing political cartoons since high school and continued to have them printed in the college newspaper for years. For my graduate work, I did a larger than life plaster statue of a soldier attacking with a rifle and bayonet. There was no skin on his exposed face and hands. Inside the chest, I buried a small piece of rotting meat. During the annual student show, the soldier smelled of death.

 

You mentioned one of your favorite porcelain artworks was “Cookies at Fred’s Place.” Benjamin Franklin, presented as a hippo, and Frederick the Great as a sheep are sitting together at a table. What was your idea behind it?

One day the idea occurred to me: Wouldn’t it be interesting if famous figures who lived at the same time, but never crossed paths, were actually able to? The fantasy was that Frederick, who liked having interesting people in his castle, would invite Benjamin Franklin. I added the animals because to make the fantasy real you have to make it funny enough, so people enjoy it regardless of the artist’s concept behind it.

 

Who were some of the mentors you met along the way?

Henry Raleigh and Harry Hurwitz, that is just to name a few. Raleigh, the head of the art department, was a brilliant, bitter man who had contempt for authority and the self-important, childlike faculty. He was known as “Big Hank,” and I was called “Little Hank” as we shared the power over the art department. Hurwitz, a drawing instructor, gave me a sense of companionship and personal encouragement. I remember taking over his classes while he would run off to teach at another school.

 

How do you think New Paltz is different now?

In my time, students were proactive and independent. Taking over the entire houses off-campus, we lived communally, made art together, even bought buildings and businesses in town. Now, it seems like the campus is too big to be fun, and the town is too commercial to be progressive.  

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