Learning the Art of Fresco

Philadelphia-based artist Mariel Capanna, who studied fresco painting with a conservator in Florence, is sharing her expertise and multidisciplinary take on art with the Haverford community as VCAM’s artist-in-residence.

Mariel Capanna inaugurated her three-week residency as part of VCAM’s Philadelphia Artist-in-Residence Program with a public fresco workshop held in the VCAM Create Space. During her time at Haverford, Capanna will also visit courses, discuss her work in fresco and oil landscape, and host a collaborative painting in the Create Space–which will take the form of an immersive three-walled painting.

Her hands-on workshop, held April 7, offered a crash course in the ancient technique of painting pigments into fresh plaster–or fresco. Students began by mixing and applying lime plaster with sand, and then prepped fresco pigments with distilled water and used them to paint directly into a fresh plaster surface. Engaged in every step of the process, students came out of the workshop with their very own fresco to take home–one they both designed and painted.

When Capanna graduated from the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2013, she was primarily an oil painter. “Interested in the histories of American folk and landscape painting,” she took a year-long, 30,000-mile road trip around the United States. This trip saw Capanna hike to the top of mountains for expansive views of the surrounding cities and towns and visiting local homes to observe their architecture, taking in “far and near, big and small.” Her goal: to include these “aspects of material culture and topography” into a single painted portrait of a locale.

Her paintings during this time were inspired and informed by the visual rhythms of location. Discovering that she “wanted to find a way for the paintings themselves to stay put,” Capanna reached back into art history–toward cave painting–and found that fresco, a rich medium inherently tied to architecture, “offered the possibility of making paintings inextricable from the places where they were conceived.”

In addition to the architectural-scale fresco projects Capanna has completed over the past few years–from painting onto adobe walls alongside the L.A. River to using fresco to transform the walls of a single-car garage in Arkansas–she’s also made a series of small fresco “fragments.”

“Fresco is a wildly durable form of painting that can can last thousands of years, but frescos can also be eroded–by forces of nature and of man–and survive in bits and pieces,” she said. “I’ve developed a fascination with these small odd-shaped fresco bits which, like a Sappho poem, suggest a larger, lost whole [and yet] are beautiful and ‘enough.'”

A few examples of her smaller-scale work with fresco fragments are now on display in the VCAM 202 Artist Residency Studio.

“The VCAM Philadelphia Artist-in-Residence Program connects students and faculty with local artists who take a multidisciplinary approach to creating and making,” said Associate Director of Campus Exhibitions Matthew Callinan. “This is the same multidisciplinary approach mirrored here at Haverford in the way that faculty and students approach both teaching and learning.”

Using the creative hub of the VCAM building as a meeting point between the Haverford community and Philly-based artists, the program “creates a broad range of opportunities to engage and learn from one another through an exploration of contemporary artistic practices,” he said. In placing artists in collaboration with the campus, “the hope is to break down long-held myths and show students in all disciplines that the real key to art is inquiry and therefore art is open to all who have questions they want to explore.”

Photos of the fresco workshop by Dex Coen Gilbert ’21.