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Henry Cavanagh

Henry Cavanagh Schipperke Jar
Schipperke jars

A few years ago I had the opportunity to chat with Henry Cavanagh. I have four pieces of his artist-created cookie jars in my own collection and wanted to know a little more about the artist behind the jars. We talked about his art, his life, how he started, and what he’s up to now. Since we are fellow “Brooklynites” there was an immediate connection. And as Henry says, being from Brooklyn is really a nationality in itself.

A Hippo in a Tuxedo? It might be a little hard to imagine a Hippo wearing a tuxedo or a turban, but that is exactly what Henry imagined and worked on before he started making cookie jars. He lived in Germany during the oil embargo where the Hippo is called the Horse of the Nile. This inspired Henry to make Hippos — sculptures of dressed, whimsical Hippos. Henry related that he and artist wife, Laura Wilensky, became active in the arts & crafts circuit on the east coast, doing shows, exhibiting in galleries, etc. At the time he was working on his sculptures and doing some bronze work (his B.F.A. major was Bronze Casting).

Diners John Baeder (famous for his realistic diner paintings) bought a piece of Laura’s artwork and became friends with the Cavanaghs. This inspired Henry to make Baeder a ceramic piece as a gift –a personalized butter dish. It was in the shape of a diner and was named Baeder’s Diner (complete with palette and paintbrush). With no intention of selling it, Henry put out on a shelf before giving to it to Baeder. When people saw it, they wanted it. Henry says “Suddenly I was in the diner business!

Friend Glenn Appleman As they followed the Arts & Crafts shows he became friends with Glenn Appleman who was also doing the circuit selling his automobile jars. Meanwhile Henry started to make Diner Cookie Jars — they got larger and larger. The diners soon were about the size of an Appleman car. Somewhere around this time Appleman eventually quit working in ceramics, moving to France and working with computer programs. Since Appleman was no longer at the Arts & Crafts shows, people started confusing Cavanagh with Appleman, asking “Why did he (Cavanagh) stop doing cars”?

Diners turned into Cars? Henry says, “I was correcting them all the time, but they still confused us, without me ever doing a car. Since I was always getting asked about ‘my’ car jars, I finally did a few prototypes. As a friend and fellow artist of Appleman I certainly did not want to infringe on his designs or have my art work confused with his. I checked the copyright information and made sure I was not copying his works“.

Henry has done the diners, delivery trucks, and cars with whimsical dogs. Each individual version of his jars is limited. And since each jar is made by hand, he can personalize the jar to fit the buyer. For instance Dad’s Ice Cream Truck or any name a buyer might want. He even does a Kosher Ice Cream truck complete with a Hebrew decal. When enough people request a particular brand, e.g. Good Humors, it becomes a standard by itself and a parallel numbering system is created. The Good Humors truck was very popular and Henry eventually created another edition of it changing the colors around.

Cars with Dogs His most recent jars are cars with dogs in them. These can be either generic dogs or personalized to a fit a person’s pets. Laura does the dogs, which are then fit into the car. The car is also available in different colors. And although he no longer makes the Diner cookie jars, but he still does the go-withs. Brownstone and Diner teapots, sugar and creamers, dinner butter dishes are in their lines. Each item is individually done and many can be personalized. But Henry said the really big hits of their shows are Laura’s salt and pepper shakers of the portrait cats and dogs. Henry said he is exploring different venues for his art work and making it available to more people. He’s always been an exclusive operation, but that exclusivity makes an item both rare and expensive. “My business is like trying to repair an airplane in flight, it’s sometime hard to stop what you are doing to look to the future“.