1 Daniel Cavey at L’Antica Fornace di Montecchio with a series of six aquatic plant pots, to 35 in. (89 cm) in diameter, wheel thrown and stained, Terra cotta from Impruneta, gas fired to 1830°F (999°C), 2011.
“I fear animals regard man as a creature of their own kind which has in a highly dangerous fashion lost its healthy animal reason.”
—Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science
In transit, my mind feeds on anticipation. My thoughts surge forward and are slowed only by the quiet, track-timed intervals at which I divert my attention to the passing landscape. The train is headed for Avellino in southern Italy, slightly less than one hour from the town my great grandfather left for America in 1890 and slightly more than one hour from the town that I spent nearly a year in when I was a little boy. The return to Italy is weighted with a sentimentality that does not serve me, and I must push such trappings aside and be consumed in my purpose, as befits this writer’s subject.
Daniel Cavey is a fellow artist and traveler, an expatriate who left his family’s farm on America’s Eastern Seaboard to find himself more alive amidst the hills and vineyards of Tuscany and, finally, settled with his Italian wife in Avellino. Our divergent paths have been charted by a few chance meetings and a mere handful of abbreviated, one- or two-line messages. One dated communique reads, “You know I’m not a moral man, I gather [morals] as a convenience and, most of the time, find them inconvenient. Those silly lead sinkers of society.” True, Cavey is self reliant and not a man of conventional morality or character, which are diseases, as Ralph Waldo Emerson writes in his essay “Self-Reliance,” the same as “men’s prayers are a disease of the will, [and] their creeds a disease of the intellect.”
Autarky is also an illness, common among both the farmer and the craftsman, should there be any distinction between the two. For the farmer who accepts the necessities of birth, nurturing, and slaughter, it is a matter-of-factness, a detachment, an assuredness that comes from a very particular relationship with the realities of life and death. Through his materials—clay, wood, and stone—the Old-World craftsman strikes a similar relationship with the earth, one of collaboration, and finds, beyond what it provides and what he is able to provide for himself, a great deal of excess and absurdity in the world. This is Daniel Cavey, a man composed mostly of what serves him (and it is an uncompromising precision of the will that is worthy of the artist’s German ancestry).
As an apprentice’s mastery of an art often entailed achieving a copy of a master’s piece, Cavey’s ascension began by modeling his craft on the salt-glazed stoneware from what was Germany in the 16th and 17th centuries. Digging his own clay, building his own wood-fired kiln, the careful relief-sculpting of visual minutiae for sprig molding, and solving the puzzle of chip carving clay surfaces, which he does entirely by hand, Cavey’s adaptations of Westerwald pots were as much an aspiration to a set of values and to his heritage as to an aesthetic template for his own expression. Upon that template, portraiture of the artist and the animal life on his family’s farm are icons extracted from a personal narrative. They are also the emblems of a way of life that he sees fading from contemporary America, and they are expressions of his yearning for its sensibility.
Naturally, then, the discontent left the US for good, exiting with an ultimately short-lived position as an assistant at La Meridiana, a ceramic art center in Tuscany, in the fall of 2002. Once established and once again unsatisfied with his circumstances, Cavey left La Meridiana to engineer a more independent and rewarding career based primarily on commissions to make architectural and garden ceramics for the villas of the region’s most wealthy.
4 Sus Scrofa Majori Tondo, 31½ in. (80 cm) in diameter, 2009.
5 Boar-head vase with oak-leaf festoons, 23½ in. (60 cm) in height, 2010. 4, 5 Wheel-thrown and hand-modeled terra cotta from Impruneta, gas fired to 1830°F (999°C)
The Villa Work was made with terra di Impruneta, which is hammer-milled galestro—a regional calcareous marl—a mix of lime and clay. (Due to its high lime content, the ceramic objects made from this clay must be soaked once in water after firing to keep them from crumbling.) At the time, nobody was throwing with galestro, which is an abominably coarse clay. Instead, it was mostly press-molded in production and rarely translated into unique artworks. Even if others were throwing, the more unwieldy pottery-wheels typically used in the area could not accommodate the scale at which Cavey was working on his imported Brent.
Wheel-thrown and adorned, the surfaces of his pots were then aged through discoloration with additional clays and camouflaged with patinas, nicks, and lichen-textures to better incorporate them visually into their surroundings. The works were fired in the car kilns that now exist at a historic kiln site, l’Antica Fornace di Montecchio (the ancient kiln of Montecchio), on the historic Fattoria Montecchio (the Montecchio estate), where traditional and contemporary pots, tiles, statuary, and other goods are now being produced.
Site-specific in that they were made with local materials and inspired by the flora, fauna, and architecture of each residence, the villa work would prove pivotal. The influence of location, scale, and the ambition and refinement of Cavey’s modeling all grew in this time. A more expressive content would also emerge in his subsequent artistic endeavors.
Post Villa Works: The Remnants Series
Cavey’s post-villa work, the Remnants series, was conceived at Lo Spedale degli Innocenti (the Hospital of the Innocents), a 15th-century orphanage in Florence designed by Filippo Brunelleschi. At one point in its history, a revolving door was installed so that children could be left there anonymously, with as much pity for the deserters as for the abandoned. Low-fire earthenware tondi by Andrea della Robbia, featuring swaddled (in fasce) young children in high-relief, are mounted on the spandrels of the building’s colonnade.
Remnants began as a variation of the tondi at Innocenti. In Cavey’s interpretation, however, wheel-thrown plate forms assume the role of the building’s circular architectural niches. And while made at a similar scale (the thrown pieces are approximately 3 feet in diameter), the accessibility of his singular forms and their display at eye level convey a monumentality and a directness that della Robbia’s tondi lose in their repetition across the mass and distance of an architectural façade.
Self-portrait jug, 15 in. (38 cm) in height, wheel-thrown Maryland stoneware with carved, impressed, and sprigged decoration, 2002.
The scale of Cavey’s work, which is always striking in its slightly larger-than-life ability to tactfully diminish the viewer, and its placement in exhibition are confrontational, as is the realism of his expert modeling. Displayed on salient serving forms, the symbolically swaddled and ceremoniously (de)composed remains of indigenous animals are forced invasively into the spaces inhabited by people.
7 Sus Scrofa Majori (framed), 33 in. (84 cm) in height, slab-built stoneware frame, hand-modeled stoneware skull.
8 Canis lupus familiaris and Turdus merula, to 6 ft. 6 in. (1.9 m) in height (installed height with hooks), hand-modelled stoneware, fabricated steel hooks, 2014. Installed at Palazzo Melzi, Casalmaggiore, Italy. 6–8 Salt glazed and wood fired to cone 9–10.
A similar confrontational method was also employed in later additions to the Remnants series when, in one event, the impeccably rendered and enlarged skulls of birds and mammals were displayed out-of-the-gallery in the northern Italian town of Casalamaggiore. Removed from the serene eloquence of Cavey’s thrown forms, and thus further dismembered, the works were shown in the town center, encased in architectural structures or ritually strung from a colonnade by primitivized metal appendages of hook, scalpel, and caliper. Here the cold and calculated human intellect collides with the detached and primal brutality of a public execution, exposing the consequence, corruption, and moral conflict of its audience.
Forcing these macabre and totemic spectres to the viewer’s eye and illuminating them in the dark abyss of human morality, Cavey’s works are counter-intrusions in a desperate fight for coexistence. Each sculpture is also an unmistakable sign that the artist’s greatest sympathies are not with his audience, and nor are they with della Robbia’s child-ghosts at Innocenti. In Cavey’s view, it is the natural world that has been betrayed and abandoned. Human beings have ignored, fractured and fragmented nature, driving animals and their dwindling, damaged habitats out of our consciousness and, like lemmings, toward a dangerous precipice. To blame is our civilized savagery: the unreasonableness of our reckless modernity and backward materialism, our entitlement, and our lack of empathy for creatures whose nature and fate reflect who we are. It is a grim proscription and a grave allegation, that innocence is not one of humanity’s many possessions, and that our superior morality is but a revolving door of near-sighted and self-serving hypocrisy. But such is the dark and accusatory artwork made by Daniel Cavey, once yearning, and now pleading.
An exhibition of Cavey’s work entitled “Descent Proposals” is on view through January 7, 2016 at Cloud Art (www.cloudartcoffee.nl) in Amsterdam, the Netherlands.
the author Anthony E. Stellaccio is a freelance scholar and artist trained in both fine art and folklore. He is a member of the International Academy of Ceramics, the American Ceramic Circle, and the American Folklore Society. His past appointments include the Smithsonian, the National Museum of African Art, and the Lithuanian Art Museum in Vilnius.