"For one thing, it helps the art education of the population. because there is none anymore. Very little in schools," he said. "Here, people know who I am. As an artist, it's nice to be understood like that. In a gallery, I might as well have a bag over my head for all it matters. Once you walk in here, you can tell more about my work that anything I can say in a gallery."
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Man of steel
Cawood likes making things with metal.
"I like steel. It just works nice," he said. "These oil tanks, you can (cut a piece), heat it up, put a crease in it. It won't tear and anything. It bends right where you want it to bend. You get a nice, tight crease and it won't tear."
He's worked with aluminum, copper, brass and other metals. But they don't have the structure Cawood wants. They tear. They don't keep their shape.
"They got too much dirt. I call them dirty metals. That's why steel is so wonderful. It's clean. Even though," he said, with a laugh. "I look like a coal miner most of the time. It's dirty in that way."
Cawood didn't start out to make metal art. He went into the U.S. Coast Guard just to have a job.
"They sent me to a Navy school for aviaiton mechanics — sheet metal, repairing airframes. Almost all aluminum," he said. "But it's all the same processes of bending and welding. It's just different material."
After his stint in the service, Cawood did odd jobs. Eventually, in his mid-30s, he worked in Shepherds-town, W.Va., with a guy making museum mounts and armatures.
"He needed somebody to run his steel shop. I brushed up on my steel and went to work for him," Cawood said. "I started spending a lot of time in art museums. And I started getting really interested in art for the first time in my life."
Cawood made a few pieces of metal art using scrap mechanical parts. People liked his work. Galleries organized shows for him. He expanded his metal skills by working with Danny Hurwitz, a master blacksmith in Brownsville.
"He did a lot of stuff in New York — European-style scrollwork, old-school stuff. I learned a lot from him," he said. "Then I was doing blacksmithing just to support my art habit. Eventually the art just took over."
Showing and selling in galleries was good money, sometimes, but Cawood soured on it.
"I just got so horrified by it. It's always hard to get paid. And gallery owners never come here to see what I do," he said. "Then you start selling your stuff, and they want you to make stuff that sells. It's hard not to fall into that when the money starts rolling. But it's not good for you. You get stuck."
Giving warmth to cold steel
A few years ago, Cawood had a realization. While viewing a piece of video art at American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore, he found himself powerfully moved. He realized his work didn't have that emotional punch.
"(I saw) that the way to convey emotions is through human faces. Everybody relates more to that than anything," he said. "(I wanted to show) the sad undercurrent of life, like the complete bareness of the soul. And I thought, ‘Who's emotional? Who's got faces that say what I'm trying to get to?'"
He said he began studying people's faces, looking for raw emotion and depth of soul. Finally, listening to blues music one night while paging through a book of early blues musicians, he found what he wanted.
"I started looking at those faces. And I said, 'Ah, that's it. It's those guys.' Their faces were just wrought with emotion. All their stories. It's all in there," he said. "So that's what started it."