Interview with VCAM Philadelphia Artist-in-residence Mariel Capanna pt 1

Multidisciplinary artist Mariel Capanna has been working in VCAM for the first three weeks of April 2018 as Haverford’s first VCAM Philadelphia Artist in Residence. Learn more about her work in the following interview with the Hurford Center’s Kelly Jung, and stop by VCAM Create Space 006 on Tuesday, April 24, noon – 1pm for an “artist talk” with Mariel in the form of a casual, quasi-moderated conversation over a lovingly prepared lunch.

Kelly Jung: How did you come to work in fresco and what attracts you to that medium?

Mariel Capanna: That has a bit of a backstory: I went to the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts where I was trained in representational, observational painting techniques, but while I was there I started making paintings directly from film. I was watching American western films and making paintings simultaneously . . . as the images would go by I would grab whatever shapes, colors, objects that I remembered from the screen and would try to quickly translate them with paint onto canvas. The resulting painting was kind of a linear narrative collapsed into a single frame.

I was usually watching American westerns because I was interested in how the American landscape is pictured both through landscape painting and through film; how the American West has been mythologized through visual culture. So when I graduated from PAFA I got a grant from the Kittredge Fund to dig in to the topic of the American West; to travel around the country collecting imagery about Americans’ relationship to local landscape. I spent the year driving around in 30,000 miles of curlicues, collecting all imagery . . . during this time it occurred to me that my process of absorption was attached to geography, but my process of painting wasn’t. I was taking all that visual information back into my private studio where I’d make a painting that might get sold, and if it sold I wouldn’t know where it would live, or with whom. I wanted to be more intentional about this; about where these paintings would live, and for what audience.

Having stumbled upon a handful of petroglyphs during my road trip, I started reaching back towards cave painting and landed on fresco as a medium that arguably predates the private ownership of paintings; a medium that’s integrated with architecture and is attached to place. A fresco is an image made with earth and mineral pigments painted into fresh plaster. As the plaster cures, the painting becomes a crystallized part of a plaster wall’s surface. I realized that through fresco I could make a painting that is inextricable from the place that inspired it. So, I received a grant from the Independent Foundation to travel to Florence, Italy for a semester to study with a conservator named Lorenzo Casamenti.

I’ve been really delighted by how, over the last handful of years, one whim of an idea has led to a trip which has led to a project which has led to another project and so on. It occurred to me somewhat randomly to study fresco painting — I don’t know that the logic that led me to study fresco was actually that solid — but I did it anyway. After studying in Florence I moved to Los Angeles. When I was in L.A. I knew I wanted to place myself in an art community, but I didn’t want to be attached to galleries. So, I looked for organizations that were doing high quality art programming in non-conventional spaces, and I found Clockshop, a nonprofit arts organization that commissions and curates interdisciplinary arts programming at the Bowtie Project —  a post-industrial parcel of land beside the LA River. Clockshop had just invited the artist Rafa Esparza to create an adobe brick installation called Con/Safos at the Bowtie Site — a project I was able to help with for a full year, making thousands of adobe bricks with the artist and his family. Those bricks eventually turned into walls. After working with me for a couple of months, Rafa invited me to make a fresco on the adobe walls beside the L.A. river. With this opportunity to make a fresco on an adobe brick wall, I realized that the lime plaster used in fresco is a medium common to fine art, sacred spaces, and domestic architecture  . . . it’s the same material that’s commonly used as a finish for earth walls.

KJ: So was the project in L.A. the first big fresco you worked on?

MC: Yes, and it was temporary, which was strange because frescos tend to be somewhat permanent. If properly protected, they can last thousands of years. That fresco on the adobe wall ended up getting bulldozed after a couple months. It was kind of returned to the land, which was cool to see.  

I should mention that with that project I realized that fresco had a certain relationship to domestic spaces, but I also started to make connections between frescos and other kinds of wall painting. Here I was in east L.A., on a parcel of land that graffiti artists and taggers used as a space long before Clockshop showed up to curate fine arts programming. There was a certain tension between the taggers and the arts organization which I found really interesting. So here I am, a visitor from Philadelphia in this public space in LA, working in an antiquated form of wall painting, and there’s another kind of wall painting that’s happening in the very same place: graffiti. Every day in L.A. I was also looking at sign painting on walls of bodegas. And there is this other kind of wall painting where the city comes in to paint over tags and graffiti with rollers. There were so many kinds of wall painting to compare, and sometimes they would happen all on the same wall, shouting over each other or interrupting each other or harmonizing with each other.


KJ: I sense that you are interested in the afterlife of your work as much as the making of it, and also the nature of fresco being embedded in certain architecture or being part of a community. What has been the experience of being an outsider creating a permanent work of art in various communities?

MC: It has become more and more important to me to be explicitly invited. I struggle with a lot of “community art” projects, because as a visiting artist there is always a danger of imposing an alien aesthetic or a narrative or an ideology on a place . . . it’s a dangerous role an artist can play. I’m wary of that, and I want always to be a good guest . . . I’m working on figuring what that means. I did a project recently called Little Stone, Open Home for a gallery called Good Weather. It’s a fresco in a single car garage in North Little Rock, Arkansas. This project is, for me, getting toward an ideal version of a site-specific project. I was invited to make a fresco in this particular garage with a sliding door; when it’s closed it’s a private space, but when it’s open it becomes part of the landscape and is quasi-public. Not only was I explicitly invited to work in that garage by the home’s owner, but I felt comfortable inviting people into that garage as well. I’m being hosted by this community, but I’m also able to play the role of host. And the source imagery I used to paint in the space was gleaned from family photographs — the home-owner’s mother gave me permission to look through and use the family photos. I have access to this space indefinitely, so I’m going to continue to go back to North Little Rock and deepen my relationship with the place and with the local community, and I’ll continue to add more imagery. But I want to make sure never to steal any imagery, or assume ownership of imagery that is not mine to take. The other issue with being an outsider coming in and making location-based work is that there is another danger of aestheticizing a place or making shallow a place that is deep or complex. I did another project at the Tacony LAB through the MuralArts program. During that project, I had a studio in a public library, I was working with kids and families regularly, asking them what they love about the neighborhood. Every bit of the mural was based on those responses I received. But in the end, it’s still my hand making the marks. I’m not sure of that. That’s another thing that I might want to grow out of. I haven’t found my way to shake off authorship altogether, I would love eventually to make an image that is more of the visual equivalent of a Quaker meeting, a space where anyone has room to offer an image or content. But I haven’t thought of the right way of making that happen quite yet.

KJ: Fresco, by its nature, has a time limit. To my knowledge, it takes a while to prepare the fresco, but there’s a short time frame to paint when the surface is wet. How has this aspect of fresco influenced your work?

MC: All of my paintings require some kind of time restriction. With oil painting I impose a time limitation on myself by working from images that go by quickly, sometimes working from a movie; when the movie ends my painting is done. Fresco has offered me another kind of time restriction: it takes a while to prepare the plaster, but once the plaster is applied, I have four to six hours to paint before it’s cured and will no longer accept pigment. Fresco has worked really well for me because the labor and urgency of it match my own two modes of working. I have an attachment to the feeling of working really hard in a physical way. The way to prove to myself that I am taking something seriously is to break a sweat, and in the preparation of the plaster I do that. That way of working from sunrise to sunset doing the same repetitive task over and over… there’s something monastic about it. I have a reverence for physical labor and I want my practice to include that.

The onerous process of wall preparation makes the surface precious to me. Fresco painting can feel light like watercolor, but rather than working on a piece of paper, that can feel like close to nothing, I’m making a heavy solid object that sits like a rock. Part of it is that there is something that feels healthy and meaningful about taking the time to turn something into a ritual, and it’s evidence of care. But then, the painting is very quick and you are stuck with every mark you make, so there’s no room for mistakes or for fussing or for self-doubt. I could talk about this process in any number of ways, but the speed at which I need to paint and the confidence with which I need to paint serves as a big-picture kind of analogy for me about being satisfied with things as they are. There is no way for me to talk about my work without talking about my relationship to my parents, both of whom have passed away, but more specifically my birth mother who died when I was two years old. I think I’ve always had this sense that there is a certain urgency and rush to get things done; that you might do a lot of work and potentially only have a short time to make a mark, and I try to think of that as ok. Maybe even good. There’s an optimism to my process of fresco painting, I think.


Come back tomorrow for the rest of the interview!