Artist Mariel Capanna delivered the Germantown Friends School Abigail Rebecca Cohen ’91 Art Lecture on Wednesday, May 7. The Class of 2006 graduate encouraged students to detour off the “straight path” in life.
“I took a strange and wandering path to exactly where I wanted to be,” Capanna said.
As a “typical GFS student,” Capanna played softball and tennis, performed in the school’s choir and a cappella groups and enjoyed her studies in a wide range of areas, never suspecting that she would one day be making art. She attended McGill University in Canada and, after two years of changing her major every single semester, she said, “I felt like a defeated version of myself … and since I wasn’t making anything I wasn’t really proud of myself.”
The only thing that gave her real joy was drawing cartoons for the school newspaper, so when she came home on break her parents encouraged her to take time off to work on her art.
“The best part about taking a semester off,” she told the students with a smile, “is that it makes it easier to take another semester off.”
For a year she focused on creating art, even traveling to Greece to paint at the Aegean Center for Fine Arts.
“I took my eyes out of textbooks and out into the world – needed to slow down,” she said.
She enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, earning a B.F.A in painting. She was awarded the Cresson Travel Scholarship from the PAFA faculty, which provided funds for summer travel in Europe and studio space and classes allowing her to earn a Certificate of Fine Arts.
During that time, Capanna painted images while simultaneously watching western films, capturing glimpses, patterns, colors and objects and quickly and loosely piling them together on small canvases. The work helped her overcome her need for her work to be “perfect.”
Making art, she said, is “99 percent looking and 1 percent painting.”
“The painting happens quickly, but the looking takes a really long time, and the more you look at, the more you know,” she said.
She said she currently studies many images – from 14th-century masters to Instagram photos, from movie masterpieces to her family’s home videos.
In April 2013, Capanna received a Kittredge Fund grant, allowing her to pack up her “art van” with a few personal items and a lot of art supplies for a year-long road trip. She traveled through tunnels, navigated deserts, crossed the Grand Canyon and climbed mountains. She grew her “visual vocabulary” while “driving 35,000 miles worth of curlicues across the country, stopping approximately every five minutes to take pictures.” She is creating vivid and rich paintings layered with multiple perspectives, rough memories and scattered images of the American West.
Having recounted her “wiggly” path to becoming an artist, Capanna said:
“I’m glad that two years into college I got really confused and basically closed my eyes, spun around, pointed, and art was there. If you find yourself barreling forward toward a single goal that you are not actually quite sure about, you might put the brakes on and let yourself know that you are not stuck going in one direction. Let your eyes wander. See if anything catches your eye and interests you and, if it does, it’s okay to step off the straight path and wiggle your way toward that exciting thing.”
On that inspiring note, the students and faculty gave Capanna a standing ovation and many seniors thanked her for sharing her story as they head out to make their own potentially “wiggly” path through the world.
This annual GFS lecture series is named for Abigail Cohen, who was a graduate of the Class of 1991. Her life as an artist and photographer was dedicated to the pursuit of social and aesthetic concerns. The series is made possible by the generous support of her brother, Jonathan Cohen (GFS Class of 1988), and his wife, Julia Pershan.
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