Anthony Caponi (1921-2015) – A Modern-day Renaissance Man
Anthony Caponi was an artist, educator, poet, philosopher, innovator, and engineer. For nearly 70 years, Caponi lived, worked, taught, and created his art in Minnesota. His distinguished career carved an indelible mark in the cultural history of the state and contributed immeasurably to the wealth of arts available to its citizens.
From Italy to Minnesota
Caponi was born in 1921 in Pretare, Italy, a tiny village in the Apennine Mountains on the Adriatic coast. The rugged surroundings had a deep impact on him and a profound influence on his work. The story of these early years is told in Caponi’s lyrical book, Voice from the Mountains (Nodin Press 2010). Caponi came to Minnesota in 1946 to study at the Walker Art Center School and later at the University of Minnesota where he earned his M.Ed. As a student Caponi exhibited his work alongside his teachers and the Minneapolis Institute of Art purchased two of his sculptures.
Artist, Teacher and Visionary
While a student, Caponi made the first of his many contributions to the field of art. He rediscovered how to cast metal using the Lost-Wax Process by reading Benvenuto Cellini’s autobiography in its original medieval Italian. Once a tightly held secret, Caponi successfully introduced the process to the community for others to use. Consequently, he built the first metal foundry in a school while teaching at Macalester College.
Rarely working from a traditional model, Caponi carved directly into the stone in a creative dialogue with the material, discovering along the way what the stone was destined to become. The Granite Trio in St. Cloud, MN is a prime example of Caponi’s work—the energy and spontaneity generated by direct carving and a design that invites interaction, touching and climbing. The Granite Trio became such a part of the community, the city celebrated the 40th anniversary of its installation in 2013.
“My work with stone is not so much a choice as it is a realization of what I am, philosophically and physically. I want to wrestle with my work and caress it into its final form. I want to release my pent-up energy through hammer and chisel and the sweat of my body, until my spirit finds its calm, my mind its order and the work will have recorded in tangible forms the process of transforming frustration into a wholesome, satisfying expression.”
Caponi created works in many media and was the author of several books including, Voice from the Mountains and Meaning beyond Reason.
Caponi began mentoring students at Macalester College in 1949 and was chair of the Art Department for most of his 42 years at the school. While at Macalester, Caponi used his background as an artist to change the way art was taught and set standards that others would later follow. He put creative studies on an intellectual par with conventional academic studies by changing the curriculum: studio and history classes were given equal footing and fine arts was made a requirement for a complete liberal arts education. This approach to teaching is so pervasive today that most people could not imagine art being taught any other way.
Caponi was also the driving force in the creation of the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center at Macalester College, the first building in the country designed and built specifically for teaching the fine arts and became a prototype for liberal arts college art facilities. Under Caponi’s leadership, the Macalester art department came to be ranked among the top 14 in the nation. While his teaching, research and leadership took time away from creating his own work, the desire to share his knowledge and insights with others was an essential part of Caponi’s character.
A Devotion to Art, Nature and People
Anthony Caponi is living proof that a true artist never retires from art. Caponi’s long and distinguished career as a sculptor, teacher, art administrator, and writer is a model of what it means to be fully engaged in life as an artist for generations of students and artists. In the 24 years since retiring from teaching, at age 70, the focus of his energies was the creation of Caponi Art Park—his vision of the integration of art, life, and nature. In the park, one senses a totality where rock, earth, sculpture, trees, water and plants come together in an organic whole. The Art Park stands as a living metaphor for Caponi’s life and work.
Without plucking a leaf or leaving a body in want
I take from life.
I take all I can and give it all back with a personal flavor.
I rub softness into granite; knead clay to free from it a
form that becomes, with the life it takes.
To give ideas a body, to animate a body with spirit,
To share the pleasure of transforming the mind’s ghosts
into caressable shapes,
I teach the unzipping of the inner layer of the mind
where experience ferments and nourishes judgment,
where the soul expands and swells the vents of expression,
flavoring existence with shared feelings.
I teach the fusion of mind and touch, so not to divorce understanding from the sensuous rewards of knowing.
—Anthony Caponi, excerpt from “Meaning beyond Reason”