Jun 28

I bumped into this thing that was painting: How Mariel Capanna uncovered her artistic self

by: Carly Rapaport-Stein

Artist and native Philadelphian Mariel Capanna sat down with me recently to discuss her residency at the Tacony LAB. Read on to hear more about Mariel’s artistic path and the art and ideas emerging from Tacony.

Carly: Tell me a little about your artistic path.

Mariel: As a college student at McGill University, and a double major in physics and cultural studies, I found myself trying to study all different things. Having had a well-rounded high school education, I wanted college subjects to feel like they were part of the same cloth, but at school they all felt like disparate dots. After switching my major four times in four semesters, it occurred to me to take some time off.

I put college on pause and started working at restaurants and cafes, and during that time, I took a class at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts with Peter van Dyck. It was a cast drawing class, and it was what I wanted learning to feel like. I loved the process of looking outside of myself, looking at the world around me, and figuring out how to translate that on paper, and I loved how physical the work was.  I was so smitten with this process of drawing that I decided to use all the money I saved up working as a cook, as a waitress, as a barista, to go to Paros in Greece to a program called the Aegean Center for the Fine Arts. I focused on oil painting there, very traditional, observational oil painting techniques – glazing and scumbling. After a semester of that, I realized I should not go back to McGill and started from scratch as a freshman at 21 at PAFA.

I thought that I’d go from high school to college to graduate school, etcetera, etcetera. Getting very confused after two years ended up being really wonderful, because I bumped into this thing that was painting, and I hadn’t been painting at all before that. So, it was a very surprising series of events.

Getting very confused after two years ended up being really wonderful, because I bumped into this thing that was painting, and I hadn’t been painting at all before that.

- Mariel Capanna

Carly: Surprising, but it sounds like it opened up a new world. So what drew you then to this residency at Tacony?

Mariel: After I graduated from PAFA, I got a grant from the Kittredge Fund, which allowed me to travel. I spent a year driving in 30,000 miles worth of curlicues across and around the country, as I was interested in the American landscape. When I was at PAFA, my final year in studio, I was painting exclusively from Western film. I watched movies and painted simultaneously and as all the images would go by I would collapse this linear narrative – the Western has a beginning middle and end and it would all get smushed into one painting. I liked the idea of making a painting in the course of two and a half hours, but as I focused in on Westerns, I became more and more interested in the American landscape, and specifically, how we depict the American landscape.

With the Kittredge Fund award, I applied this movie-painting process to a slideshow of images that I collected over a year of travel. I took thousands and thousands of photos driving through small towns, farmland, wilderness, national parks, state parks, and a lot of local history museums. It started out as a quest to see all of America and summarize the landscape, but I became more and more interested in local and regional aesthetics. What is the palette of this town? Based on the architecture, based on the flora, based on the fauna, based on local taste in decoration, or lawn ornament, or based on the history of industry here, what are the colors that I see in this town, what are the rhythms that I see, how could this equal a painting?

I’ve been interested in the history of painting, and getting kind of confused as paintings as framable, hangable, sellable things. I was sure of painting as a process, but not sure of it as a sellable product. At PAFA I’d been studying 19th and 20th century American and European painting, and as I was researching material to apply for a grant from the Independence Foundation, I dug way back to fresco painting. Fresco painting, arguably, predates the idea of painting as an object for private ownership – it told stories, often biblical stories, in public places and in narrative form to the masses by using a visual language that everyone could understand.

When I found out about this residency in Tacony, it felt like it was the perfect marriage of these two interests I had been pursuing – my roadtrip in 2013, then fresco painting in 2014. This residency was an opportunity to go to a neighborhood with a very rich, industrial history, one that is valued and that its residents are interested in exploring, but a place that also is ready to celebrate itself in the present tense – what a perfect place to make a fresco!


  • Parading by Mariel Capanna. Image courtesy of the artist.

  • Mariel with Symbols of a Whale Watch by Mariel Capanna. Image courtesy of the artist.

  • Mojave Mercado by Mariel Capanna. Image courtesy of the artist.

Carly: What do you hope the process is going to be like in building this fresco with the Tacony community?

Mariel: I am a visitor to the neighborhood and would love to be introduced to the neighborhood by seeing it through the eyes of the people who lived there – the people that have lived there for generations and the people that just moved there last year. What streets do you go down? What do you notice? I want to get people to pay attention to the neighborhood the same way we would look at a painting, with a real eye for detail and for color and for composition.

I hope to go on a series of tours with people and take photos as I go on those tours, which will become like a Tacony slideshow. I’ve been going to the Tacony archive in the Tacony Music Hall, which is a really beautiful historic building from the end of the 19th century. I plan to gather all of the images I end up collecting through this process into a catalogue as a takeaway for anyone who contributes content. It will also live in the collection of the library as a way to have a deeper reading, like a close reading of the eventual fresco. The fresco will hopefully be an exciting, attractive point of pride to any passerby, but I like the idea that there’s a way of taking a closer look and unpacking the bits and pieces of it by having this catalogue.

Carly: Coming into this, did you have any hypotheses or dreams about what you might accomplish as an artist or for the neighborhood?

Mariel: I have this interest in the relationship between verbal and visual languages. Fresco, as I mentioned, has this history of being a narrative form, telling stories through images. So having a studio in a library, a library that is filled with a collection of books, by definition, and I’m interested in figuring out how to promote visual literacy at the same time as verbal literacy. How to see these things as interrelated, not one or the other, but how these two things can hold hands.

I see this as a very exciting opportunity to work with neighbors to grow an image in a neighborhood and to see that image live there. That’s unprecedented for me, to have such a specific process. To date, I’ve collected images from landscapes and geography and neighborhoods and brought it into my studio and worked on it there, and figured out where to display it. This will be the first time where everything stays put. From beginning to end, it will all take place in Tacony; every ingredient in this mural will be hyperlocal.

Carly: What’s been the response from Tacony neighbors so far?

Mariel: I’ve been wandering and wiggling around the streets of Tacony for the past couple of months and everyone I’ve bumped into has been like, “my daughter is an artist and really wants to learn how to paint,” or “my son’s an artist! My uncle’s an artist! I’m an artist” There’s definitely a lot of excitement to have art in the neighborhood – people want to come in and participate in the workshops, or at least, that’s what they’ve said! I was helping out with that mural in the area and talking with a 6th grader who came out with her class, who told me that she’s writing a book and illustrating it and she really loves art. I told her about the workshops I’m going to be holding in the library and she seemed vaguely interested, went back to her classroom, then a couple hours later came out with a piece of paper for me to write down my name and number. There have been a lot of nice little moments like that, of people generally showing enthusiasm.

Carly: Thanks so much, Mariel, and I’m eager to keep following this project and your progress!

Last updated: Jun 30, 2016

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