Skip to main content

Newark Life

The finder of discarded things

Dec 30, 2020 11:17AM ● By Tricia Hoadley
By Richard L. Gaw
Staff Writer

Every so often when she was a child, Jane Kavanagh – one of nine children – got to accompany her father Jack on Saturday mornings to the family business, which was then located at the corner of Pratt and Central in downtown Baltimore.

Begun in 1866 by her great great grand uncle, The Joseph Kavanagh Company started as a coppersmith business that designed and built distilling equipment, but by 1959, Jack had taken over the company and transformed it into a pipe and tube bending business.

Everyone in the Kavanagh family referred to The Joseph Kavanagh Company not by its formal name, but as “The Shop,” and for the young girl, it held the magic and the mystery of a children’s fairy tale, and was accompanied by the scents and sounds of work.

The rattling clank of a tool dropping to the floor of the workshop.

The large windows of the building that let in the yellowish morning light.

The permeating whiff of soil and dirt.

The glistening sheen that would radiate off of steel.

The concentration of her father’s body as he tinkered and invented, and turned old shapes into new shapes.

The tactile connection of her father’s hands to the tools of his trade.

This was Jack Kavanagh’s inherited domain, and every time Jane Kavanagh joined her father, it was like being given the keys to the family kingdom.

“I work very much the way my father did,” the artist Jane Kavanagh Morton said from her JaneKav Gallery in Newark. “I look at how I work now as an artist, and when I’ve worked with material for a while, I look at other materials to see how I can convert them into a possible vision of what I have.

“My father was very similar. He was not afraid to try new things and go on different paths. He was an artisan, and to be a good coppersmith, you need to have a good eye, and you have to respect the process.”

It’s great when you can connect with your father in another way’

While Morton’s artistic life began with drawing and painting, it wasn’t until she took ceramics classes at Hood College in Frederick, Md. that her life as an artist took hold of what she’d remembered from The Shop as a child and chose not to let go.

In fact, she would sometimes drive to her parents’ retirement home in Ocean City, Md. and show them what she had been creating, and watch her father run his hands over her artwork.

Often during her first years as a ceramic artist, Jack would look up at his daughter and tell her, “I have an idea. I have a lot of ideas,” which took Morton back to the kingdom at the corner of Pratt and Central where she watched her father work.

“One time, he gave me a small copper cup he had made, and then wrote down the step-by-step instructions on how to make it,” she said. “It was as if he opened up his whole world to me, and gave me everything I could ever wish to receive as an artist. It’s great when you can connect with your father in another way, other than in the traditional sense.

“This was a different way to help me to grow.”

It is not known for certain whether creativity is an inherited gene. Yet, to hear Morton discuss the process by which she creates her copper and ceramic sculptures, porcelain figures and her melted metal pieces (words like “pit firing” and “kilns” and “metallic paint” are often heard) is to make the argument that there is truth to the adage that the fertility of a creative mind is passed from generation to generation.

“My great-great grand uncle taught my great grandfather who taught my grandfather who taught my father who taught my brothers and my youngest sister, Ann, who runs the bending machines in the shop,” Morton said. “Since the company was first founded, the Kavanagh Company makes pieces of things, and a lot of my work that has been coming out has been made from pieces,” she said. “I play around with them, and I see what piece fits with other pieces. I will reach back to pieces I’ve had for several years, and I bring them back into being because they play well with other pieces that I now have, and they found the world that they need to live in.”

For Morton, the scents, sounds and sights that she experienced as a child have absorbed themselves into the bloodstream of her creativity, and served as guideposts for a 15-year career as a well-respected artist.

From her home studio in Newark, she has created a diversity of art sourced from clay, metal, paper, paint and ink that has led to her work being showcased at the Delaware Art Museum, the Dover Art League, the Biggs Museum of American Art, as well at as the University of Delaware, the Newark Arts Alliance, the Newark Library and the Newark Municipal Building.

Artistic confidante and soul mate’

Most prominently, the showcase of Morton’s artistic catalog is on display at her JaneKav Art Gallery in the Barksdale Professional Building, where throughout the year, she organizes shows that feature the work of local artists – a glittering, room-by-room changing display of handcrafted textiles, pottery, jewelry, encaustics, sculpture and glasswork.
While the gallery has become one of Newark’s must-see locations for new art and new artists, there is one fellow artist who has been Morton’s artistic confidant and soul mate for years: her sister Nancy Kavanagh O’Neill. For the past 40 years, O’Neill has been a portrait photographer in Baltimore, and used her skills behind the camera to develop the art of encaustic photography, a technique that uses beeswax and damar resin as a medium to create paintings or mixed media artwork.

Morton called her older sister “the other artist in the family.”

“A lot of the shows I do at the gallery are in conjunction with Nancy,” she said. “We’ll talk about what we’re doing, but won’t actually see each other’s work until we put it out before a show. When everything finds its perfect place in the gallery, we’re always amazed and amused by how well our pieces blend together. Nancy has called it a common dialogue that our pieces have with one another.

“It’s a very special thing to have your sister as literally your best friend, and to share our art together has allowed us to take our friendship to another level,” she added. “We often describe ourselves as sharing the same brain.”

During the time the JaneKav Art Gallery has been closed due to COVID-19, Morton has continued to combine her curiosity as an artist with new and existing mediums. Her studio is dotted with melted metal she is working on. There is porcelain paper clay that she wants to fire in her kiln. She just finished a wire sculptural weaving class.

“I am constantly taking my art on a different tangent,” she said. “It’s a free-thinking studio, and it’s where I get to figure things out. I am in a constant conversation with my art.”

In the end, Morton said that her mission as an artist is to extend that conversation to her audience.

“Life is a journey and along the way we gather pieces that form our lives,” she wrote on her website. “Some fit easily; some struggle to find their place. Sometimes we need to make pieces and sometimes we just find them along the road. What are we made of? Happiness, sadness, despair, who knows? We are made of many emotions and events. How are we formed? With love, anger, loss and whatever gets us through the night.

“For me, it is hope that summons the pieces of my life together to form a connection; to create a dialogue that opens a door to invite the rest of the world to join in.”

The JaneKav Gallery is located in the Barksdale Professional Building, 625 Barksdale Road, Suite 103, in Newark.

To learn more about the art of Jane Kavanagh Morton, visit www.janekav.com, or email [email protected].

To learn more about Nancy Kavanagh O’Neill, visit www.nkophoto,com or email [email protected]

To contact Staff Writer Richard L. Gaw, email [email protected].

Like what you're reading? Subscribe to Newark Life's free newsletter to catch every headline