THE INTERVIEW: KAREN CAPPOTTO
As you read this interview, please keep in mind that there was much laughter due to Karen's self-deprecating humor and ironic wit. We tell you this only because we thought putting (LAUGHS) after every quote would be overkill.
Artist Karen Cappotto was born and bred in the central New York hub called Syracuse. It serves as the crossroad for not only the Northeast freight and passenger railway service but also for the Erie Canal and its branches. It is not rare to see Syracuse on the best of lists of where to raise a family so it should seem appropriate that Peg + Dick chose such a place to raise the Cappotto brood.
MLTV: Was there art and music in the house growing up?
KC: My father had a record collection and a stereo set so there was always music in the house. He loves the Irish sing-a-longs. My dad also had a workshop. He would make the chairs and Mom would make the pillows. We were of the mentality that - if you want something, you make it.
My dad played guitar. Every few years my family would travel to Ireland for the summer and he would play in the pubs in Tipperary. He would enjoy the Irish culture sing songs as much as my mom who was born there. My dad is Italian.
MLTV: So it began in the home and carried over into school.
KC: No. I actually went to parochial school in Syracuse. There was no art class though I would spend as much time on the cover of my school reports as I did writing the actual reports. I loved making art so much but I convinced myself - and everybody else - that I would be a writer.
MLTV: Oh, so you were a Catholic school girl?
KC: It was at church where I first became involved in art. It was the late 60s, early 70s and they had just stopped reciting Mass in Latin and added things like Folk Mass to try to make it hip for the young people. You know, we'd be singing along with Day By Day from Godspell or something from Jesus Christ Superstar.
They would have these huge four foot or six foot tall burlap banners on the sides of the altar with passages from The Bible glued onto them or a saying about how everyone, black or white, should be treated the same. I was the one who cut out all of the letters for Follow The Lord's Path. I cut out all the footprints that made the path along side of the quote.
I also got to make the mobiles for the music room at school.
MLTV: So besides the folk masses, what was your first concert?
KC: Marshall Tucker around 1975 at the Syracuse War Memorial Stadium. I saw Bonnie Raitt around the same time. I was attending Bishop Grimes High School where I was classmates with the comedian Bobcat Goldthwait and Tom Kenny who became the original voice for SpongeBob SquarePants. They were a year behind us but they would hang with us.
MLTV: It figures that all of that energy - from Bobcat to you - would emanate from a Catholic High School.
KC: It was a really good school. I was the class Vice President and I ended up getting a scholarship to Boston College from there. I was so lucky. I took my first art class at BC.
MLTV: So this was your introduction to Boston?
KC: No. When I was 16, I snuck out to visit Boston. I had a 28-year-old boyfriend in Somerville. He was an anarchist named Nigel. He was British. He was friends with the brother of the Class President who was my best friend. A very accomplished writer; he turned me on to authors like Kurt Vonnegut. I was so impressed that he was paying attention to me. I had everyone convinced that I was a writer.
MLTV: That's pretty funny. A British anarchist named Nigel. Well done. If your mother only knew.
KC: While I was at BC, I got to actually go to England. I was chosen to attend Oxford University at Manchester College to study contemporary, British women writers and continue studies in Feminist Theology. I had studied with the radical Mary Daly at Boston College.
MLTV: Was she the woman who was visited by the Virgin Mary while she was at Tufts and started A Course in Miracles?
KC: Mary Daly would never stoop to such a thing. She was the radical, lesbian theologian who wrote Beyond God The Father and Gyn/Ecology. She was a radical feminist.
MLTV: Holy shit. Never heard of her but I love her already. We'll have to do a piece on her.
KC: I settled on writers like Muriel Spark (The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie) and Flannery O'Connor (Wise Blood, The Violent Bear It Away.)
MLTV: That was the peak of the punk/new wave explosion in England. Did you you get to witness any of that while you were there?
KC: No. The only show I saw while I was over there was the Grateful Dead at Wembley Stadium. A deadhead girl named Happy took me. I wasn't impressed. I was only in England for about nine months.
After Oxford, I felt a bit depressed. I was not making my usual grades so the Dean of Students called me into his office and feigned concern. He suggested I take a leave of absence. He neglected to mention that this decision would relinquish my scholarship, so I essentially left in the midst my senior year. I kinda felt relieved. The college campus was so alien to me. I wasn't a prep growing up. I had never seen people wearing pink and green.
It was at Boston College however that I took my first art classes and I loved it. I had begun to gravitate more toward art electives. I took animation with Ken Brown where I made my first movie which was based upon the Orgasmatron from Woody Allen's Sleeper. The class was at 8:30 AM and I was always late because I lived off campus. Ken Brown was also famous for black and white pen and ink postcards. He began his commercial career by filling a van full of his postcards and driving across the country. By the time he returned, orders and checks were coming in.
I was also taking a printmaking class where I began making my first etchings assembled as collages. BC had a campus magazine, The Stylus and I had thrown one of my first collages, Forever Lacing, into a trash can. A professor was walking by later and it caught his eye. He pulled it out and it ended up in the magazine. I believed my path was certain to be a writer and the first time I ended up being published was for an art piece that I had thrown into the trash.
MLTV: What did you do when you found yourself out of school?
KC: I call the first half of the 1980s my lost years. I started hanging around the Boston club scene like Spit, Jumping Jack Flash, The Rat and The Channel when I could catch a ride over there or hang with bands like The Wandells, The Neighborhoods and Aerosmith. That's a whole other story. I ended up working at Strawberries Records & Tapes in Kenmore Square and was one of the cool kids with the asymmetric haircuts. They used to have in-stores with people like Billy Idol. Just being around Kenmore Square and Newbury Street I met people like Marco from Adam & The Ants. Eventually Strawberries didn't think that I fit. I wasn't quite fired but was offered an extended leave of absence. We already know how those work out!
Then I moved into the Charles White Apartments Building which were these apartments that abutted the Cars studio so I used to see them sitting outside at their picnic table having lunch. We shared the alley. It was a complex that was strictly single, good-looking people. The tenants were people somehow deemed glamorous. Ha. There was an outdoor swimming pool behind the complex, that WAS very fetching. When not swimming, I spent much of my time inside of my apartment obsessively making collages. When you lock yourself in a room for eight years you learn how things fit together.
I would get out sometimes and head down to Lansdowne Street for the WBCN Lunch Time Concerts where you could get free hot dogs and see bands. My other obsession at the time was the BCN deejay Bradley J. I actually called the station and got him on the phone in the midst of a heatwave and convinced him to come over and hang out.
MLTV: I actually got in trouble for bringing Mr. Butch (famous homeless musician, philosopher who ruled Kenmore Square) with me to a Lunch Time Concert. Someone pulled me aside and asked me to not bring homeless people into the club. I think it was Metro then.
KC: Yes. I knew Mr. Butch. My favorite Kenmore Square/Rat story was with Billy West (Ren & Stimpy) who was horrible when he was drinking (he's been sober for thirty years), I ended up pouring a beer over his head and the bouncers threw me out. I was on the sidewalk out front crying because the people I was with were still inside and they wouldn't let me back in to get them. I looked over and I guess they had thrown him out too. He came over to me because he felt so bad and tried to calm me down. We ended up going home together. We became good friends. Strictly platonic. I have a picture of him somewhere. I'll try to find it.
MLTV: I remember walking into The Rat one night and two bouncers were dragging Billy up the stairs. He yelled to me, “Tell them who I am!” I said, “That's Billy West!” to which he replied, “No! I'm Charles Laquidara!” (Charles was the famous morning deejay at WBCN.) They kicked open the door and threw him to the curb. Around that time is when I first met you. I think you were dating James Ryan, the chef at the Rat restaurant, the Hoodoo BBQ.
KC: I think I was stalking Wayne Podworny (photographer, owner of Store 54.) Shortly thereafter I met my first husband.
MLTV: And it was your husband who introduced you to Provincetown?
KC: No. Back when my high school girlfriend and I were traveling to Boston to see Nigel the Anarchist, we spent spring break on Cape Cod to see if we could find summer jobs. We didn't like the Cape until we found P-Town but it was much too early in the season to get jobs. We stayed at Ça Vous Plait which is now Enzo's. I swear it was Anthony Perkins who answered the door there. The place was haunted.
MLTV: I will never forget visiting your husband in Provincetown and he asked me to stick around for a minute because he wanted to introduce me to his new girlfriend – the girl he was going to marry. You were in the back of the store in the storeroom. He was in utter dismay and shock that we already knew each other!
KC: Everything back then is a total blur so if you tell me that story, I guess I'm going to have to accept it as the truth. You can tell me anything you'd like and I will have to go along with it.
I took my mother's advice and settled down. I tried to be a good girl and a good wife. We worked very hard at making a good business. Because Provincetown is seasonal, I got to take off five months every year during the winter and we would head down to Florida. I started taking art classes again at museums and then I began studying with Jim Peters who oddly enough is also from Syracuse. He had a studio that overlooked the artist Edward Hopper's house in Truro. Jim always paints his wives. He's had three of them. I studied at his home with his wife, Vicky Tomayko, who is an amazing printmaker. I learned so much about life and art from the both of them.
It was so amazing. In a way they gave me the courage to go back to art school but this time I wasn't squatting with Mr. Butch, I was living on Newbury Street. I was newly divorced.
I began taking courses at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts. This gave me access to people like Jerry Bernstein, a very invigorating professor; Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, Agnes Martin, Ellen Gallagher and an education about contemporary artists. This gave me my confidence and this gave me my wings.
I started sending out pieces of my work to contests. I was working on these 4-inch-by-4-inch pieces called What Are You Looking For? and submitted them to the Spring Arts Competition 2003. Christine McCarthy, the former director of the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Art) and currently of PAAM (Provincetown Art Association & Museum) - where she has done a world class job by the way! – and the artist M P Landis were on the committee and and I didn’t win, but was given an entire wall for my entry!
I’d say people were upset that they cleared this big wall of all these Provincetown classics to hang these four tiny pieces on but it allowed me to see my art in a whole new perspective.
MLTV: Hold on. The prize for this competition was for the work to be hung at the Provincetown Art Museum?
KC: No. That privilege came later but did get me representation.
This in turn got me into the Boathouse Gallery next door to the Beachcombers, the famous artist's club. In 2003, on my 43rd birthday, Wendelin Glatzel from the Boathouse informed me that I had sold my first painting. I thought that it was a prank and they were trying to set me up for my birthday gift but it was some tourist that didn't even know me. I thought he was joking.
After the Spring Arts Show I also got gallery representation at the Schoolhouse Gallery where I did my first official gallery show. Kevin came to that show. That's where I met Kevin.
He was a filmmaker... an intelligent and sexy guy. Irish and all of the familiar stuff and he had gotten money, a $30,000.00 EU grant to write a screenplay. We left and moved to Spain for the winter.
MLTV: Okay. Slow down. Please explain this one.
KC: An old BC friend said she had a crazy brother-in-law that would be my perfect match so he flew in from Ireland for the show. I had traded some correspondence with him but I didn't even know what he looked like. I spent the next several years traveling around Europe.... Spain, Ireland, Sicily.
I filled a suitcase full of found objects and I collaged my way through Europe. I won all sorts of awards but I still hadn't found my voice as a painter. That's when I got pigeon-holed as a collager.
We settled in Limerick, Ireland at Limerick Printmakers. It was this great old factory, very Dickensian. It was full circle. I was less than an hour from Roscrea, Tipperary where my mother was from and where we had spent our summers when I was young. I was accepted there and I did shows and got some great press. I fell in love with the Shannon River and the bridges of Limerick. I would walk everywhere around town and this is when I created my Bridge Series. I've most recently had a similar inspiration with the Pamet River in Truro. That is a project that I am currently working on.
We were there from 2005 - 2009.
The easiest contest I ever won was at that time when I submitted one piece, a collage I made, Kitchen Sink Drama , as an EU entry and was rewarded $50,000.00 print advertising support and 1,000 euros cash. It ended up on postcards distributed throughout Ireland along with a poster. Late 2009, I was missing home in the States and collaged a bunch of Christmas cards, Sculpture Gallery and sent them to friends and family. Not long after, we came back to America.
MLTV: So, you arrive back home with husband number two.
KC: No. We came back and then got married right before we broke up.
MLTV: You got married right before you broke up?
KC: Yes but it was perfect timing. I immediately landed another PAAM show. It was my mid-career show with other mid-career women; painters Liz Carney and Megan Hinton. I had still been painting under my previous married name, Karen Coill, and this was my coming out as Karen Cappotto. I think everyone was expecting my collage work but I chose to exhibit half and half. It was half collage and half painting so it was really my coming out as a painter as well. Chris Busa wrote an article about me for Provincetown Arts Magazine and he created a buzz about me regarding my paintings. It was so intimidating but I was also relieved and grateful.
The energy was amassing and everything was doubling. My career kind of became two strands; two branches. On one hand I saw an opportunity to reproduce my work from both the EU and the Limerick Printmakers as a card line.
MLTV: Like post cards?
KC: Yes. In the spirit of Ken Brown. I also took an interest in reproducing my collages as a decoupage plate series. I saw a business model for the collages. Plates! So I put the cards on plates. This was the birth of Peg + Dick, which I named after my mom and dad. Everything happened very fast. The line was picked up by this hip furniture chain owned by one of the first openly gay-owned companies, Mitchell Gold and Bob Williams. I was approaching my mid-century. I was mid-career and I was on the midway... the midway at the carnival.
The other branch was that I began to have clarity in my painting. The two worlds were happening at the same time, side-by-side. I wasn't trying to do two different things, they just both rooted at the same time.
A girl came to P-Town to celebrate her Mom's 60th birthday and had interned with Mitchell Gold and was heading up their new accessories department. They had begun moving towards Crate & Barrel. She saw my work and they licensed my plates. It started out with great hope. It validated my Peg + Dick concept which I saw as very analog in this technological world.
And of course on the other hand, just to make things more interesting, I was awarded a Lillian Orlowsky and William Freed Foundation Grant which gave me $10,000 to paint.
My plates were featured in the style section of The Washington Post while my paintings were getting me press in places like the Provincetown Banner. I decided it was time for me to find some studio space for myself and I went over to see what was available over at Patrick Studios on Route 6. I really needed a place to paint but I also needed a place to produce Peg + Dick. Literally, two long-term tenants had just died so I figured it was fate and I took both of them. One for painting and one for Peg + Dick. Two people died for me to get my studios.
MLTV: Not sure if I should laugh or cry.
KC: When I first got here (Patrick Studios), Chris Busa said that this was the closest thing to Day's Lumber Yard - which was the original Provincetown Fine Arts Center - that he had ever seen. Occupying studio space was a potter, a kinetic sculptor, a videographer, a furniture maker and photographers. I always imagined people flying into the Provincetown Airport and being whisked over to the Studios. It was life changing. It gave me my first studio and there was a collaborative nature.
By 2012-2013, I was making accessories, licensing, working on movie sets and being shown at Rockefeller Center. I wasn't even aware that I was at Rockefeller Center. Someone mentioned it to me in passing and lo and behold.
I began collecting maps from George Bryant's dump which is directly across the street from PAAM. Maps of The Emerging America has all of these beautiful illustrations. I loved the paper and the landscaping feel to the maps. I created my Map Series from this find and they ended up going right across the street to the walls of PAAM. They got picked up by a commercial catalog, 666 Park Avenue. And George Bryant's isn't really a dump. It's a treasure trove. I thought it was great that those maps ended up in a show across the street at PAAM.
MLTV: George Bryant is so cool. He brought Ronny Hazel all kinds of historic information on the new Shop Therapy building when he first moved in. When George goes that's the end of an era.
So now you were being represented in multiple catalogs?
KC: No. Mitchell Gold started making their own version of my plates. I guess that's what corporations do and I was very wounded.
MLTV: Have you ever packed up the car and driven around the country like Ken Brown to sell Peg + Dick products?
KC: No. Peg + Dick is based upon a very unique business model. Let people find us!
MLTV: So what is the business model for the future?
KC: I think that Mercury has been in retrograde for the past six months so now I am once again at the crossroads. Can I sustain both worlds; the Peg + Dick venture and my painting? I am obsessed right now with local sustainability and collaborative opportunity. I think about the two people who died so that I could create my east wing and west wing studios which I am now calling Studio Route 6. I was just in New York where there was interest in my painting. The collage work has picked up new interest. I am getting ready for my residency for March at the Vermont Studio Center where everyone I have spoken to who has gone has had a great experience. I am also going to try some yoga while I am up there.
I am in the planning stages for my first one person show this August (2015) at (AMP) Art Market Provincetown (148 Commercial Street). I will be unveiling my Provincetown Interior Series and my Pamet River Series.
MLTV: And what's on the horizon in the world of collaborations?
KC: Scream Along With Billy's Bill Hough has been performing his piano show at the Gifford House for the past ten summers. His shows at the Grotta Bar are legendary. He has been featured in Time Out in the New Yorker. Some of his Gifford House sets feature the old Irish sing songs. It's really performance art. It's music for the carny folk who come to visit Provincetown. At some point I realized that WE are the carny folk. WE are the new era. WE are the amalgamation that are at home in this strange place. I love his music and we became more social. He recently asked me to be the Art Director for a modern version of Hamlet that he is directing and starring in. We hope to bring it out this spring. It's in post production right now. Maybe it will accepted for the Provincetown Film Festival!
MLTV: I know that Peg is no longer with us but how does Dick feel about his name being in lights?
KC: My dad has only subscribed to one magazine in his whole life, This Old House, and he called me one day to tell me that my work was in the new issue. In his eyes, I had finally made it. So, all is right in the world.