The Magic of What Gets Left Behind: Jessica Caponigro in the Studio

July 11, 2019 by

Since she was a child, Jessica Caponigro has been surrounded with the kind of organic matter that blurs the lines between magic and medicine, aesthetic and utilitarian. Lemons, olive oil, vinegar, cement, coal, and salt were all staples in and around the Eastern Pennsylvania home where she grew up, and she’s continued to feel pulled to use these same materials in her art.

“I use a lot of fake flowers, astro turf, slate, coal and building materials,” Caponigro explains, “My grandmother used to have coal on display at her house, in a sort of homage to how she grew up. Coal is a material that is filthy and disgusting, but it’s also taken from the Earth in such a violent way, and is also organic matter that’s been compressed over time. And salt was something that was always used as a protective element in our house. Salt, lemons, olive oil, vinegar were very much medicinal in my home. And as I’ve gotten older, I’ve started paying attention to the way that certain plants and herbs are magical more than just medicinal. I’ve thought a lot about the way those two worlds connect and intertwine.”

Take, for example, the lemon she adorned with nails as a charm to stop fascists, white supremacists, and homophobes from doing harm. Is it art? Is it a tool of divination? Is it something she’ll add later to a soup? Caponigro says, all of the above.

“I surround myself with ritual things all the time, so sometimes it’s difficult to separate what’s life and what’s art; there’s candles and plants and crystals that go back and forth between being in installations and being on my altar. And so there’s this interweaving of all of these aspects.”

Still from video provided by the artist

So it’s no wonder that her work at the Women’s Studio Workshop this summer is making use of the elements she’s surrounded with in the Hudson Valley. “There’s a lot of cement industry here – I’m around stone kilns and abandoned stone buildings that really tie into the prison project I’ve been working on. I’m making a lot of stencils with salt and protected elements, burning a lot of stuff, and using a lot of the natural flora that’s around here.”

Images provided by the artist

The prison project Caponigro mentions is, more specifically, inspired by the Hexenhaus, a prison in Bamburg, Germany in the 1600s that was the site of hundreds of executions and severe torture of people who were accused of witchcraft. Hexenhaus was demolished about four years after being built, but the hauntings of its violent legacy remain, and Caponigro wants to think through the ghosts of imprisonment. “I’m trying to use this environment [in the Hudson Valley] as another way to look at destruction, wall-building, and what gets left behind.”

This looking-back is a consistent theme in Caponigro’s art, and her political framework more generally. Caponigro and her partner started Snake Hair Press in 2017, which began primarily as a way to create affordable zines from their apartment in Boston, and offers literature on the history of immigration in the US, the history of the printing press, and now stickers, pencils, and posters. Caponigro’s engagement with the past seems always-already to be in the service of creating a better future.

Images provided by the artist

After the election of Donald Trump, Caponigro explains she was “frustrated that people thought this [racism, xenophobia, homophobia] was new,” rather than structural realities that our society has been built upon. But rather than seeing this as a defeat, Caponigro also sees examples of resistance in the past that we can and should learn from. And zines, she says, allows her to disseminate information in the world that is, “vital and important, and in a way that is as accessible as possible.” Further, a percentage of each sale from Snake Hair Press goes directly to organizations working to support marginalized communities, including Black & Pink, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Trevor Project.

Image provided by the artist

Caponigro loves the potentiality of mass duplicates. “I can create something bigger than this one to one conversation, something that goes to people I don’t know. I can disseminate this information to people I’d otherwise never have access to. And I know people do that on the internet, but I’m not very good at the internet!” she laughs.

Whether it’s burning flowers in a dilapidated cement building, screenprinting rosemary on paper pyramids, or recording divination videos featuring a jar of her own urine, Caponigro offers us art that is above all, rooted in the belief that anything we create can be magic. And that magic is what we need to build the kind of world we want to live in.

Still from video provided by the artist

“I want to use my abilities and things I know well to exact some sort of change – and I don’t know that that’s happening,” Caponigro pauses, “but at least I know that I’m trying.”


Raechel Anne Jolie is a writer, educator, and media maker. Raechel received her PhD in Communication Studies with a minor in Gender & Sexuality Studies from the University of Minnesota. Her writing has been published in numerous academic journals as well as various popular press sites (Teen VogueBitch Magazine, In These Times, and more). Her memoir, Rust Belt Femme, is forthcoming from Belt Publishing. She lives in Minneapolis with her partner and perfect black cat. You can find her @reblgrrlraechel or at www.raechelannejolie.com