Fresco Workshop with Mariel Capanna

Julia Coletti ’21 describes attending VCAM Artist in Residence Mariel Capanna’s fresco painting workshop.


I woke up Saturday morning after a long week, ready for a day of relaxing painting. Feeling sleepy but hopeful and seeing the first signs of spring, I made my way to the fresco painting workshop. I discovered very quickly that a day of leisurely painting was not what I had in store.

VCAM resident artist Mariel Capanna began fresco painting in 2014. Fresco painting,  popular from the late thirteenth to mid sixteenth centuries and then again briefly with the mural work of Diego Rivera between the 1920s and 1950s, is a practice in many ways abandoned by a majority of modern artists.  In her work, Capanna looks to explore narratives of place, creating (often collaborative) colorful murals and paintings honoring the feelings and histories of the places in which she paints.

After brief introductions, we rolled up our sleeves, gloved our hands, and put on protective  masks. We walked past blank canvases and neatly prepared paints to the back of the room where, rather than dainty brushes and bright colors, we saw two buckets and a hoe.

Mixing two parts river bed sand with one part lime, we undertook the laborious task of mixing, pushing, and working these elements into each other, eventually forming a smooth plaster. As though tending to a garden, we took these incongruous elements of earth, and with water and arduous care, we turned them into a surface prepared to sprout the color and life of painting.

Photograph by Dex Coen Gilbert ’21

The plaster was then carefully smoothed onto the blank canvases already set up in the room and left to cure in preparation to be saturated with the gentle stroke of a paint brush.

Before we could paint, we took pigment made from rock and clay and molded the particles into volcanic mounds. With the simple introduction of water and, again, manual labor, the dry pigment was transformed into a creamy substance ready to take on new life.

As we waited for our freshly-plastered canvases to cure, Capanna spoke to us about her experiences with fresco painting. From Italy, to California, to Arkansas, and now her native Philadelphia, Capanna has created frescos in a multitude of contexts, sharing the frustration, patience, and joy found in the practice of fresco painting with us that day. I was intrigued by the permanence of fresco painting and how the inability to “undo” is beneficial for overcoming perfectionism, something which in my own life has led to a great deal of annoyance. However, the unforgiving nature of fresco was also somewhat daunting.

As the workshop neared its close, it was finally time to paint.

Photograph by Dex Coen Gilbert ’21

Holding the canvas in my hands, I realized I had a much deeper connection with the surface than I had experienced with other mediums. Taken from the earth and worked with my own hands, the rectangle of plaster was not mass-manufactured nor effortlessly swiped from the the shelf of an art supply store. It was created as part of the art, and the painting I tattooed into its surface did not stand alone but was rather a piece of the larger whole.

As the workshop came to a close, it became clear that the participants, including myself, were excited about this medium, new to us but centuries old. The participants fed off of each others’ excitement and creativity, and Capanna offered to support students in the continuation of exploring the art of fresco.

Although the workshop was only several hours long, it certainly left a lasting creative impact on its participants. While Haverford may not support its students covering the walls with large fresco murals, I hope that the impact and inspiration of Capanna’s workshop will not disappear from this campus and its students.


Written by Julia Coletti ’21, Long Island, New York

Edited by Anna Mehta ’18, English Major, Auburn, Alabama