Artist and alum Alanna Cavanagh finds inspiration at U of T

June 26, 2024 by Adam Elliott Segal - A&S News

Visual artist Alanna Cavanagh found her inspiration at U of T, first while earning her honours bachelor of arts in fine art history and religion in 1992 as a member of Woodsworth College and later while working in the U of T Bookstore after graduation.

“Clearly I didn’t want to leave,” jokes Cavanagh.

Enamored by the greeting cards on display, inspiration struck and she started designing her own. She loved the idea of working within restrictions, creating the “cozy cafe” series.

“I realized I was attracted to greeting card design, which is connected more to commercial art than fine art,” says Cavanagh.

Her first card sales were to Book City, which retailed for $6 each — Cavanagh’s take for each was half. That ambitious, DIY spirit paid off, and her work has since appeared in publications worldwide, in ad campaigns and on surfaces such as Canada Post postage stamps and Hudson’s Bay tea towels and dinner plates. Cavanagh credits her studies in the Faculty of Arts & Science as instrumental in developing her “flat” style.

Window illustration of chandelier and two people sitting at a table and eating lunch with red wine.
A window installation featuring Cavanagh’s illustrations at local dining institution The House on Parliament.

“I closely studied Greek vase painting and medieval art, both of which are very flat and have no three-dimensional quality to them,” says Cavanagh.

After abandoning a musical theatre degree after high school, she arrived at U of T, not some wide-eyed 18-year-old, but a mature student at Woodsworth College ready to jump headfirst into her studies. One of her professors was Dennis Reid, then the head curator for Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

“What an experience! You’re getting the head curator as your professor. I sat in the front row, just drinking up everything,” says Cavanagh.

“I fell in love with the campus. Hart House was one of my favourite places. I did an aerobics class at 6:30 a.m. every morning and rewarded myself with breakfast at this tuck shop that doesn’t exist anymore. They had this adorable China with the Hart House logo on the plates and the bowls.”

She lived near campus on Palmerston Avenue in the Annex with her younger brother. Another art history major lived upstairs; a pair of architects lived below. Her degree provided her with a “deep, deep foundation in art history.” When she became a commercial illustrator, she was able to pick up the references with whomever she was working with because she was grounded in myriad traditions.

Cavanagh stands in front of her installation “Big City Blooms” at Commerce Court in downtown Toronto.

Her work has been showcased in high-profile places such as the Four Seasons Hotel and the Ritz Carlton and her salt and pepper wallpaper adorned Google’s headquarters in San Francisco, but she’s always maintained ties to Toronto. One of her clients, in fact, is the city itself — her playful illustrations were featured this year in an ad campaign for multi-tenant homes.

In 2006, she took a silkscreen course that changed the arc of her career. She held an exhibition at Jet Fuel cafe in Cabbagetown. Cavanagh was nervous, but by the end of the night, “red dots were everywhere.” She’d sold almost every piece, which she prints by hand using Speedball inks and squeegee. Months later, a buyer’s home was featured on HGTV, and soon Cavanagh’s work — a woman’s designer shoe, a green pear or a giant pair of scissors — was in demand from other interior designers.

She even illustrated the windows of local dining institution The House on Parliament during COVID when the restaurant pivoted to takeout.

Hudson’s Bay plates showcase Cavanagh’s whimsical work.

Her client list is a who’s who of luxury brands, and she currently splits her work between creating silkscreen prints and commissioned illustration work. She's also a regular in magazines such as Canadian House and Home and designs book covers for Penguin. You’ve likely seen her illustrations in The New York TimesThe Globe and Mail or Chatelaine, on murals across Toronto, in department stores like The Bay or Nieman Marcus, or on your friends themselves — she’s on retainer for Tattly, a tattoo company.

Her memories at U of T still live formatively in her mind: studying in the basement of Trinity College, where each table had an individual lamp — “I just thought that was the coziest thing” — to Cavanagh’s first trip to New York on an overnight bus with her fellow arts students that left from the Sidney Smith Hall.

Her advice for incoming students?

“Take advantage of the co-curricular activities the university and your program offers,” she says. “That trip to New York was one of the highlights of my school life.”

This article was originally published by A&S News on June 24, 2024; reprinted with permission.