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In the Studio with Maria D. Rapicavoli

2/29/24

Studio Visit

In the Studio with Maria D. Rapicavoli

CMA Resident Artist Maria D. Rapicavoli discusses her affinity for construction tools, her upbringing in Sicily, and sketching turtles.

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As part of CMA's Residency for Experimental Arts Education, Maria D. Rapicavoli leads an after school art class for elementary school students at Hudson Guild, one of the oldest community organization in NYC. Below, visit Maria in her studio and get a glimpse at her artistic process.



On Dreams, Painting, and Her Grandmother’s House


Maria: I'm a multimedia artist. I work with many different kinds of media, yet I only recently started working in painting. Pink has never been my color at all, but I had a dream that was pink, and I had to express it in this painting. I actually started painting after a month or two after I started the residency at CMA. My students at Hudson Guild were using a lot of paint and mixing colors, so that definitely inspired me.



I have also been collecting a lot of square objects and materials. It all started a year and a half ago when I went back to Sicily and my grandmother's house. She lived near my childhood home, so I also grew up in her house. She passed away about 20 years ago, and they are just now renovating the house. They removed a lot of construction material from her house, including the wallpaper and kitchen tiles. These are the actual tiles from her house. I removed all of the tiles from her kitchen myself, then packed them up in a suitcase and traveled back to New York with them. I’m not yet sure what I want to do with them, but I definitely want to use them in my work somehow. 



I usually work in very traditional sculpting materials, like stones, alabaster, ceramics, and porcelain. When I came back to New York, I started having all these dreams about squares, so I just started collecting these samples of granite and different tiles. They’re not particularly useful because you can’t do much with one single tile. They exist to show what they might be for – the potential that they have. 



On Turtles


Maria: I’ve been sketching turtles lately. There used to be a lot of turtles that lived in the area around my mom’s house in Sicily – we had those turtles for over 40 years. Recently, someone stole them, so it’s been a huge loss for us. Turtles are interesting animals because they’re not really pets, but they do recognize people. I used to film them a lot, especially when they were eating. 


My way of sketching is very sculptural. I actually sketch using my dremel. It’s more natural for me because I like to work with materials. Carving is also more permanent. I’m leaving a trace, but not by adding something, but by removing something from the stone. 



The trace is also white, which is the opposite of traditional sketching, when you’re using black marks on white paper. I use a lot of white stones, and I’m also drawn to ceramic and porcelain that is white. My dissertation at school was about the concept of white – its presence and absence. It's something I’m still investigating. It’s very much a part of me. 


CMA: Most people would hesitate to sketch or “think out loud” on something that feels so permanent. But when you sketch, it's a fully realized object. It's more self-contained than a sketch on paper, which is really just the implication of an idea. Once you carve your idea, it becomes a relic of a thought you had.


Maria: It becomes real for me. I give shape to it. I also have been dreaming a lot about turtles. Even before they were stolen, they were part of my dreams – those specific turtles at my mother’s house. It’s a difficult process in a way because translating a dream into something visible is not easy at all.



On Her Favorite Art Tools, Materials, and Her Father’s Influence


CMA: Besides your dremel, what are your go-to tools that you use in the studio?


Maria: Chisels, hammers …. I also carve by hand, and I use a sander often. I use a lot of traditional ceramic materials. My background is Italian, so I learned very traditional ceramic sculpture techniques at school. 


I actually used a dremel to carve this work on the wall. It represents a map of the Mediterranean Sea and all of the areas that people have to navigate. It also represents a battleground. My work deals with migration and the movement of people in the Mediterranean, so I wanted to combine these two aspects.



My father worked in construction, and that's why I’m very familiar with construction materials. It’s the same reason why I made Crooked Incline using plumb lines. When I first started making the work, it’s not something I really recognized. After I was finished, I thought “Well of course I’m making this, because I grew up around construction tools.”


In its essence, my work is about construction. This piece, for example, is a sample of a larger sculpture that I made during lockdown. I recreated a broken piece of glass that I found on the street. It’s about constructing, not destroying. It's about creating from something that is broken. That’s what all of my work is about … collecting a material that was about to be destroyed and making something with it.



CMA: Going back to the abstract map of the Mediterranean Sea on your studio wall, do you also have a connection to water or more “invisible” elements? 


Maria: I often use water in my work. Water is an element of moving and transitioning, changing and passage. I’m drawn to the way that materials move and change over time. I grew up in the bottom of a volcano, literally – Mount Etna is the biggest volcano in Europe! I grew up seeing lava spewing … that’s why I’m so attached to materials and stones. The volcano is constantly evolving, its shape is always changing, and it erupts quite frequently. I’m used to the idea that things change all the time. We rebuild, something is destroyed, and we rebuild again. 


I also work a lot with the sky. The sky is another space that changes constantly. I have been thinking a lot about the militarization of the sky and of our airspaces … how it can be controlled, and how that changes how you feel. Sometimes you can really feel something is there, even if you can’t see it. 



On Her Perfect (Night) in the Studio and What’s On Her Bookshelf


CMA: What does a perfect day in the studio look like for you?


Maria: It’s actually a perfect night, because I work mainly at night! At night, I am able to sit down and focus. Sometimes I make things very quickly; other times, it takes me a long time to think. My process is research-based, so I start with reading books, writing down notes, sketching, then actually making the piece. The process of actually making work is much shorter than the process of researching, which takes the most time. 



CMA: What’s on your bookshelf?


Maria: My recent work has been very personal. The last project was a film based on the story of a family member who was forced to migrate and leave her family. I did a lot of research into domestic violence. Simone de Beauvoir was inspiring for that project. Radicals of the Worst Sort is also a very interesting book. It’s about these women who moved to Lawrence, Massachusetts and took part in the Bread and Roses Strike. 



I have also become very interested in public housing because of my residency with CMA and placement at Hudson Guild. 


On Preserving Memories and Sleeping in Spaces


CMA: I get the sense that you operate at two very different rates of speed. There’s a part of your practice that is slow, almost meditative or cerebral. Then, when you're actually making an artwork, it's much faster. Carving, for example, is such an immediate action. It also makes me consider your subject matter. You're preserving dreams, these lost turtles, parts of your grandmother’s house …. Do you see yourself as a preservationist?


Maria: I do work a lot with preserving memories. The film that I mentioned earlier, The Other: A Familiar Story, is based on a family story that was passed from generation to generation. I try to take something personal to me and make it universal … something that other people can relate to. That’s also why I work a lot with Sicily, because it’s what I know and where I come from. 



CMA: So much of your practice is you occupying a specific space and noticing something about it. Your work doesn’t come from a book in your studio, necessarily, it’s something that you bring in. 


Maria: Exactly. With Crooked Incline for example, I initially planned to make a different project. However, when I make an installation in a space, I like to sleep for at least one night in the space. After sleeping overnight on the floor, I woke up and immediately noticed that something was off. When I asked the building managers about it, they told me that the building was actually tilted from a WWII bomb explosion. That was the moment that changed my project. The installation came out of actually being in space, seeing the material, and sleeping on that floor.


Crooked Incline (2018) examines the militarization of our airspaces by illuminating the imperceivable tilt of an architectural structure rocked by a WWII-era bomb. During WWII, the Allied Forces dropped a bomb next to the building. The bomb didn't explode, but damaged the building and tilted it on one side. The perceivable incline creates a slight disorientation in people who enter the room. To represent it, Maria used 100 handmade white porcelain elements, shaped as plumb lines and suspended from the ceiling. The  plummets, whose shape resembles that of the missiles, distort even more the perception of space, resulting in an accentuated experience of disorientation, limitation and anomaly for the visitors.

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