If you live in the city of Newark, you might notice a lady walking the neighborhoods, picking up twigs and rocks and leaves and hoping to meet strangers for a chat and an inspiration. That would be Jane Kavanagh Morton, professional ceramic artist, who draws inspiration from the world around her.
Jane studied ceramic art at Hood College in Maryland, but she has worked as an artist for 35 years, painting watercolors, doing drawings for greeting cards, and designing murals for interiors that include children’s rooms and nurseries. Her gallery, JaneKavArt, which shares space with Alma Company Accounting, is filled with examples of her work, now dominated by a ceramic universe. Castles, stone walls, sheep and cottages evoke memories of Ireland, where Jane has travelled extensively. It is the land of her ancestors and she feels rooted there.
The Kavanagh men came to this country in the late 19th century. They worked as coppersmiths in Baltimore, where the Joseph Kavanagh Company continues to this day. One of Jane’s largest sculptures is a brew pot, which her father Jack Kavanagh suggested. Jane photographed a whiskey kettle at the Jameson distillery and worked at her sculpture like a coppersmith works on metal, connecting pieces by folding one slab over another. It took three people to lift the brew pot in and out of the large kiln in Jane’s home studio. Once fired in the kiln at 1850 degrees, the piece is bisque white (or terra cotta when the clay used is red) and ready for glazing. Jane uses a mix of earthy glazes and, unlike paint, they turn different colors when the piece is re-fired in the kiln. There is always an air of mystery about it while it bakes. The process transforms the clay into art. Her work has a rustic appearance. Jane says, “I like them to look like they’ve been around for a while because I’ve been around for a while.”
When you walk into Jane’s house and enter her sunlit studio, you can’t help but notice the population of heads comfortably ensconced in pots and vases and cottages. Ceramic heads, that is. “People either love the heads or are scared of them.” Some of the ceramic faces which Jane creates could be drawn from the stage of the Irish playwright Samuel Beckett. They might be Didi and Estragon waiting for Godot. Each face is uniquely magical, some are whimsical and some are alarming. They are all faces that make you want to take them home and have them greet you depending upon your mood of the day. Or you might want to turn them to the wall and imagine them smiling there.
“The heads will always be part of my work. They all started out as strangers. How many days do you go out and you meet someone and they tell you a really cool story and they make you laugh or make you sad. And people say, so you actually met someone who looks like this, and I say well not necessarily the same face, but they all have a different expression. Its not really what you look like, its the connection you make with other people. For a minute you’re best friends and then you go on your separate ways, just a little better off for the encounter. You take a little piece of them with you. I love the heads. I love to make vessels for the heads to be plunked into. They all need a home.”
All of Jane’s works are created through the process of slab making and coil building. She texturizes with different elements, shapes them, “leaves handprints behind,” finger marks that have shaped and built these objects. She prefers not to use the throwing wheel. “I could never be a production potter though I really admire those people. That doesn't work for me. I want my creations to look like they belong to one another and I think my pieces do, but they have to have something that is their own. I may make several houses but none of them look the same. If it does, I throw it out the window or throw it against the concrete. There’s no symmetry in life. I really don’t care for symmetry.”
Jane’s work has been shown at the Delaware Museum of Art was well as Hood College and is part of many private collections. She recently sold a vase which was displayed at Longwood Gardens as part of an ikabana flower display by Judy Cox.
"I do want my work to be inviting. I want to lure people in. Sometimes people with say “This really reminds me of my grandmother’s house, or these are my colors, the colors that I love.” Then I know the piece has been successful. It has touched someone else and that person can share in it.”
When she’s not in Ireland or on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, Jane strolls the streets of Newark, finding inspiration and smiling because she knows that her work is having a good life behind so many of the doors she passes.
She's just a regular person. Please come up and talk to her because she loves to talk to strangers and you never know, your head might show up in one of her pots. “Come into my kiln,” she beckons.
(This article was written by Nancy Kavanagh O’Neill, a professional photographer living in Baltimore. Photographs by the same. Nancy is Jane’s sister, and hopes to one day have her head placed in the kiln. )