May 20, 2005 St. Thomas sculptor Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh will represent the Virgin Islands this year at the 51st International Art Exhibition in Venice, Italy, the most important exhibition of its kind in the world.
The Venice Biennale, which runs June 12 through Nov. 6, is recognized as the oldest and most renowned festival of international contemporary art. The works of 400 artists from 90 countries will be represented, and more than one million people, including 9,000 journalists, are expected to attend.
The Virgin Islands entry is unprecedented. This year marks the first time a territory has been represented. Kavanagh, speaking from her Connecticut home, where she spends part of the year, was still somewhat incredulous this week. "It's staggering," she said. "Over a million people attending the e-mails we get every day, it staggers us. There's 11 to 15 parties every day."
To be included in the prestigious exhibition is more than an honor. It's a once-in-a-lifetime experience. "It's just so astonishingly wonderful to be there," Kavanagh said.
"The jury had to work to make it legitimate for a territory to be represented, since it's not a country," Kavanagh said. "Hong Kong and Taiwan are represented — China was upset, but it was an all-inclusive decision."
"This opens the door for the V. I. now," Kavanagh said. "The future has unlimited potential."
She told the tale of how she came to be invited to exhibit.
"I was in a show in Venice last year, the Openasia exhibition of sculpture and installations," she said. "One of the curators liked my work so much he asked me to submit a proposal to represent the V. I., since they knew me, and knew my work. They had never asked anybody from a territory before, it's very novel. I was feeling very lucky from the start. It has artists from all over the world, like Yoko Ono. I laughed out loud, because I didn't know it could really happen. It's a very amazing story."
After going through the vetting process by the Biennale jury, she had to get support from the Virgin Islands.
She was notified just after Christmas last year, she said, and Kavanagh and her husband, Penn, haven't stopped since. She works closely with Penn, who is retired.
Kavanagh had to be sponsored by an arts organization and by a branch of the V.I. government. "I called Sen. Lorraine Berry. I had to find somebody who would get the ball rolling. I called her at home, and she said to bring the proposal down to her office. She told me, 'Of course I'll do it'." Kavanagh said Berry wrote glowing letters to the governor, the V. I. Council on the Arts and the Department of Tourism.
Betty Mahoney, VICA director, will be assisting in the exhibition in Venice.
Monique Sibilly Hodge, assistant tourism director, said the department has helped with promotional materials and has arranged for a Cruzan rum exhibit. "They are sponsoring the inaugural party on June 11 in a restaurant adjacent to the gallery. They will give out straw hats, rum miniatures and lot of rum," she said.
"The government is not paying all my expenses, but I'm hoping Tourism will help," Kavanagh said.
Kavanagh and her husband have designed a brochure, posters, and banners at their own expense. "It's wonderful what kind of global awareness we will be bringing to the V. I.," she said. "We have a bridge banner with our V.I. logo and 50,000 brochures." The banners will hang on some of Venice's many bridges.
Kavanagh points out that this will be unique exposure for the V. I. "It's an untapped market," she said. "We will reach people who can afford to go to Venice, to begin with. We'll do everything we can to lure this type of tourist to the island, intelligent, informed people who have discretionary income."
The cover for the exhibit brochure features one of her pieces, Aevum II, on the startling blue water of St. Croix's Buck Island.
Kavanagh's said she finds inspiration in the "tranquility and beauty" of the Virgin Islands, and from her father, George Kubler, who in 1962 wrote the book that informs her work, "The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things." Kavanagh's exhibition is called "The Shape of Time."
She has not always been a sculptor. "I started about 20 years ago," she said, adding that she'd been teaching art history. "I grew up with art; museum going is in my blood. I was a potter for years, but I got tired of making forms on a wheel. One day I took the whole 50 pound bag of clay and dumped it out on my wedging board. It looked so inviting, I started digging into with my tools and scooped out and left some there. I kept shushing it back down, trying to figure out how to get it to stay where I had left it. I saw another way to use my hands. It was really telling, a deliberate epiphany, something right around the corner led me to it. You just have to search for the one that's right. I didn't just wake up one day and say 'I'm going to be a stone carver'."
Kavanagh's pieces are huge. "All the installations were picked up by the receiver at the foundry in April. They used a forklift and didn't scratch them. They weigh 2,433 pounds total. It's an 11-piece installation, seven pieces and four monoprint works."
Penn Kavanagh helps with the engineering of his wife's artistic endeavors. "When we decide what we like, it takes months and months of work," she said. "He works with me and does the scaling numerically and engineering the possible torques and leaning of pieces so they will glow without falling on their faces."
And he helps in other ways. "I had made a maquette, a model I had an idea, and I wanted to blow it up, but it kept falling over on its nose," she said. "Penn went down to Red Hook to a marine supply store, and he came back with a fishing lure, which we embedded into the plaster, and then it stood up. I would never have dreamed of that. You never know what is in my sculptures!"
The sculptures are breathtaking. Paolo De Grandis, curator of the exhibit, describes them in the exhibit brochure: "The art of Cornelia Kubler Kavanagh does not reproduce nature; her sculptures are within nature, and it is this distinguishing mark that immediately attracted me to her work. The natural beauty of the Virgin Islands and the intensity of color are significant elements in her expressive development."
To see Kavanagh's work, visit her website www.corneliakavanagh.com.
Share your reaction to this news with other Source readers. Please include headline, your name and city and state/country or island where you reside.