John Capello working on a mural in the Masonic Temple in Sag Harbor. Photo by Michael Heller.
By Mara Certic
Aesthetes, historians and wanderers drop into the Sag Harbor Whaling Museum to learn about the village’s history and admire art shows curated by well-known East Enders. The majority of them are unaware that as they absorb the exhibits on the first floor, artist John Capello is just one story above them, balancing on a chair on top of scaffolding, listening to opera and painting Sag Harbor’s own Sistine ceiling.
“I just cannot abide a blank wall,” said Mr. Capello, a mural artist from Brooklyn who has lived in Sag Harbor for the past 25 years. Six years ago he joined the Wamponamon Lodge, Sag Harbor’s Freemasons. Since his first meeting in the Masonic Temple—located on the second floor of the Whaling Museum—Mr. Capello has been “pestering” the other masons in the organization to allow him to create a mural for the blank wall and curved ceiling in the back of the meeting room.
After presenting the group with a basic pencil-drawn sketch, he got the okay to get started and in June he began creating a surreal water- and skyscape sprinkled with traditional Masonic symbols.
“I started on Friday, June 13,” he said. “And I did that on purpose.” The number 13 has traditionally been associated with bad luck in many cultures. Scholars of the masonic tradition (and the occasional conspiracy theorist) have referred to the number 13 as a masonic “signature,” noting that it appears in some way or another in strange and mysterious places, including on the $1 bill: 13 leaves in the olive branches, 13 arrows and 13 stars in the crest above the eagle, among many other “mysterious” uses of the number.
One of the main focal features of Mr. Capello’s work in progress also appears on the $1 bill: the all-seeing eye atop a pyramid, which is featured on the left side of the mural. “One of the most amazing achievements of early man was the pyramids, it’s perfect,” he said. The all-seeing eye dates back thousands of years, since the creation of a “sky god,” the artist explained. On the opposite wall is the square and compass, perhaps the most identifiable emblem of the Freemasons.
The painted pyramid and the square and compass both sit upon a checkered floor in Mr. Capello’s mural, reminiscent of a chessboard. “Supposedly, this room represents a replica of the bottom floor of Solomon’s Temple,” Mr. Capello said of the masonic meeting room. As legend goes, before Nebuchadnezzar II destroyed the building during the Siege of Jerusalem in 587 BC, it featured a checkered floor in one of the many rooms.
“Also, I’ve always been a surrealist,” he said. “And in surrealism, the chessboard is always the game of life.” His background in surrealism allows for interesting and unusual combinations of symbols throughout his mural. A six-pointed star hovers over the sea that bridges the two sides of the mural as a Bible floats over the water and a man canoes nearby—a nod to the Native American name of the Sag Harbor Lodge.
The sky spanning over the mural moves from night to day as you look across the piece of art. Mr. Capello explained that he wanted to represent the entire day, and that his decision to include many stars and certain planets is a nod to the importance of astronomy.
He almost lost his footing for a second on Tuesday, as he shaded in Mars while consulting a volume of “Hubble’s Universe,” about 15 feet off the ground.
“When I was 19, I was doing this 60 feet up in churches,” the artist said. “I guess there’s a big difference between being 19 and 60.” When he was 16 years old, Mr. Capello began a summer apprenticeship doing ecclesiastical restoration, which was his first venture into the art world. A few years later he joined the Navy.
He told a story of when he was stationed in Greece, and how he observed an old man sketching pictures of visiting sailors for spare change. While watching this, a uniformed Mr. Capello found himself sketching pictures on napkins with the only drawing tools he had—burnt matches. The older Greek man came over, he said, looked at his handiwork and said to him “No, no, don’t be an artist, you make no money. Be a photographer, you can make a few dollars.”
But Mr. Capello did not heed that advice and eventually became a mural painter based out of Brooklyn. “I did a lot of work with the Brooklyn Arts Council, and we would work with Brooklyn College and art students,” he said. As graffiti took over New York City, “we would approach people with walls.”
“I said ‘Look, we’ll paint the wall, you just pay for the materials.’” It’s a payment plan that Mr. Capello is recycling for his current project, his first ever mural in Sag Harbor. Mr. Capello expects to finish the Masonic mural in the next month. Until then, he will spend four hours of every day balancing on a chair, touching up waves in the sea and adding stars to the sky.