Artist Interview: Mary Jean Canziani

While visiting the 14C Art Fair in Jersey City in November, 2022, I happened upon this presentation of paintings by Mary Jean Canziani. The collection of works grabbed my attention right away, not only due to the engaging imagery in the paintings, but also the unexpected realization that these were painted on book covers. A closer examination also revealed that the visual subject matter of each painting related to the title of the book. I really enjoyed spending time with these artworks and wanted to learn more, both about the work and the artist, and so I reached out to the artist. This interview gave me a greater appreciation of the artist and her art work, and I hope you find it interesting as well!

paintings by Mary Jean Canziani

Above: Paintings on book covers by Mary Jean Canziani, seen at the 14C Art Fair in Jersey City in November 2022.

Artsology: What led you to start painting on books?

Mary Jean Canziani: This is the question I am most frequently asked. I wish I had a wonderful "eureka" moment to share but I think it was a combination of things that led me to books. When I had my company, Arts for the Home, I painted on many surfaces from plaster to brickwork. If a mural happened to be placed over pipes or an air conditioner unit, these were worked into the painting. It was an interesting challenge. When I returned to my personal art practice around 2009, I explored working on wood, velvet, metal ... anything I could think of.

Around that time I saw an exhibit by Mikey Smith at Invisible-Exports Gallery. The floor of the front room was covered with law books with their spines facing up. The only way to enter was to literally walk on the volumes like a floor. It was an unnerving experience which felt like an act of desecration. It demonstrated the value of books and how their presence was declining in the digital world.

These experiences certainly influenced my idea of painting on books. At first I didn’t consider titles. I was planning a series featuring endangered animals on the covers that would mirror the endangered existence of books. Then something hit and I realized I could say a great deal more by utilizing the titles.

painting of monkeys on a book cover, art by Mary Jean Canziani

"My Ancestors," 2022, 9 x 12" acrylic painting on repurposed book by Mary Jean Canziani.

Artsology: Do you have a favorite place where you look for and buy books for your art works?

Mary Jean Canziani: I scout out book sales at libraries, visit the few remaining used book stores near me and hunt on an online site. The last one is tricky because I don't know what book I’m seeking so I just type in key words and hope something interesting pops up. Plus, it's a fun way to procrastinate.

Artsology: Can you tell us about your process, as far as choosing books and how the imagery comes about?

Mary Jean Canziani: I look for older books because their cloth covers accept paint. Most books printed after the 1960's have paper covers and titles with fonts that are too large and too modern for my aesthetic. It's difficult to describe how I select titles. My work is mainly a commentary on human behavior and its manifestations. I purchase books with titles that I feel have creative potential in that vein. This "creative potential" has resulted in my having over four hundred books in my house.

Deciding on imagery is a process that goes through many iterations. It usually happens that the most obvious answer comes first but I reject it until I come up with something more subtle that still makes my point. Some of my statements are on very serious subjects so I rely on humor in my imagery as a buffer to keep viewers engaged.

Artsology: Do you read the books before making the paintings? Or is the title the sole catalyst for making the work?

Mary Jean Canziani: No and Yes. I'm an avid reader of classic fiction but most of my painted books are either technical or non-fiction. Those categories have titles that more often allow for social commentary. For me, the most creative aspect of my process is time spent contemplating the title and giving it a different meaning than the one intended by the author. I use the title to express my own idea rather than illustrate what the book is about. It can take months or years for a title and ensuing imagery to connect.

artist Mary Jean Canziani

Artsology: What is your earliest memory of wanting to become an artist?

Mary Jean Canziani: I guess it was always my identity. My earliest memory of making art was a drawing of my mother at her sewing machine. I might have been four or five years old. She had it taped to the wall near her machine for years. I just continued down that path, making art and ignoring everyone who was trying to get me to make money a priority.

Artsology: What took you to Marymount College to study art - was there a particular program or area of study there that drew you in?

Mary Jean Canziani: To be completely honest, my father was a very strict, first generation Italian immigrant and the only way he would allow me to attend college away from home was if it were an all-women's school. Luckily, my professors there were all professional artists and I received wonderful training, particularly in printmaking. Marymount was close to Manhattan so galleries and museums were a short train ride away.

In a way my father was right because, without any male distractions, I was able to devote myself fully to studying and creating art. What he didn't know was that I already had a boyfriend who was attending Columbia University.

Artsology: Tell us about your business, Arts for the Home, and how that got started.

Mary Jean Canziani: I ran the business from the late 1990s until 2011. When it began, faux and decorative painting was a big trend and a wonderful opportunity for artists. Since I was newly divorced and had a 5 year old son, I needed a job with flexible hours. I learned a great deal and had the chance to work in the city at hotels and restaurants applying finishes and painting murals. Working on a large scale brought another perspective to my artistic vision.

painting on a book cover by artist Mary Jean Canziani

"The Rehabilitation of Speech," 2021, 9 x 12" acrylic painting on repurposed book by Mary Jean Canziani.

Artsology: At the present, how much of your time is spent running your business vs. pursuing your fine arts career?

Mary Jean Canziani: The 2009 recession and changing tastes affected the business until a lack of demand made it unfeasible to continue. Therefore, Arts for the Home is now only a fond memory. During its run I was so busy working and being a single mom that my art career was put on hold. I'm happy to say that for the past several years I've been lucky to be working as an instructor at the Visual Art Center of NJ. I teach painting and drawing to adults - something I've always wanted to do. Because I'm immersed in an environment where art is the main product, there's very little competition between my work and my personal art practice. I work part time and receive Social Security, so I now have ample time to devote to painting, at last.

Artsology: In your past work life, were there any non-creative "just-to-pay-the-bills" jobs that you can reflect upon?

Mary Jean Canziani: Oh my goodness - so many! Let's see - there was grocery store cashier, bagel maker, college cafeteria worker, office worker, waitress (at 3 different times), frame assembler, retail salesperson (many times), school aide, etc. I'm grateful for all these experiences. They fuel my understanding of others, my compassion and my art.

Artsology: What do you think is the most difficult thing about being an artist in this day and time?

Mary Jean Canziani: Artists have struggled throughout history but today's financial inequity has extremely limited their opportunities. The consolidating of almost everything into corporate entities, including galleries, has left little room for small, independent places to exhibit or affordable spaces to rent. Even though I made many sacrifices to follow my artistic vision, I feel there were more options for participating in the "art world" on a small scale. While the ability to post art online is a way to have art seen, I feel it pales in comparison to seeing it in person, at true scale, in full detail, with time for contemplation.

Artsology: If you could spend a few hours hanging out with 3 artists of any time period, who would you choose and why?

Mary Jean Canziani: Number one: Leonardo da Vinci - well, because he's da Vinci. Plus, I've always liked the kind of personal art that was made by the masters when they weren't commissioned to depict saints and royalty. Number two would be Otto Dix - he was a master of social commentary, both in painting and printmaking. He utilized classical techniques to shed a light on searing modern truths. I also have an appreciation for his dark humor. And number three would be Magritte - his work is a celebration of imagination and absurdity. I've often been impressed by the strong connection people have to his ideas.

painting on a book cover by Mary Jean Canziani

"Last Flight," 2022, 9 x 12" acrylic painting on repurposed book by Mary Jean Canziani.

painting of a boy wearing a dunce cap by Mary Jean Canziani

"The Formative Years," 2021, 9 x 12" oil painting on repurposed book by Mary Jean Canziani.

Artsology: What advice, if any, would you give a young artists?

Mary Jean Canziani: First, treasure the fact that you were born with a particular vision that not many others share. It is yours to nurture, protect and enjoy. Even during times that you are not able to produce work, you are still an artist. Even if your "day job" has no creative aspects, you are still an artist. Even if your art work never hangs in major galleries or museums, you are still an artist.

Whenever you can, create art - even if it's a short sketch. If possible, search for others who share your passion for art: local organizations, critique groups, studio classes, etc. The support you can give each other is invaluable. Go out and look at art in galleries and museums. Since the proper "art world" is only open to a select few, look for other opportunities to exhibit, like libraries, coffee shops, pop-up shows, local galleries or submit to calls online. We would all like to be "discovered," but there are many ways to stay connected to our vision while we wait for that call.

Artsology: Thank you for taking the time to talk with us!

If you would like to learn more about artist Mary Jean Canziani and see more of her art work, please visit her website here. You can also follow her on Instagram here.

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