Anthony Caponi, an artist, poet, professor and sculptor who envisioned and created the Caponi Art Park and Learning Center in Eagan, died Friday at his home. He was 94.
Caponi moved to Eagan when he began teaching at Macalester College in St. Paul in 1949. He and his wife, Cheryl, worked on turning his 60-acre property into an organic blend of nature and art. It became a reality in 1992 and is visited during the spring, summer and fall months by about 20,000 visitors each year. The park, which straddles Diffley Road, is an independent nonprofit; the city of Eagan now owns the land.
But Caponi never sold his stewardship of the land, and at age 90, he was still out there planting trees, laying brick and creating winding trails interspersed with his sculptures.
"He didn't get old until he was 92," his wife said.
Caponi was from a small town in Italy at the base of Mount Vettore, where his family lived a hardscrabble life, but "being creative was just a part of being alive," she said.
His father had immigrated to the United States, sending money to support his family, and Caponi followed him at age 15. During World War II, he was a part of the allied military government, serving as an interpreter just behind the front lines. He was stationed in Florence, Italy, and other locales where he saw many masterpieces of great artists — and "that was really his art education," Cheryl Caponi said.
Between 1946, when he came to Minnesota, and 1948, he earned both bachelor's and master's degrees. He taught at Macalester for 42 years, from 1949 until he reached the then-mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1991.
"He found he was the unique art teacher who could talk about it and do it," his wife said. "The problem was he couldn't do both at the same time. He had the ability to be a more widely known artist, but it was more important for him to be an educator."
Still, he never stopped making art.
"You can imagine how much strength of will it takes to carve granite and melt bronze, and just to think that you can," said Ruthann Godollei, chair of Macalester's Art and Art History Department. "It fit his personality perfectly. He worked on tough materials. He was a tough-minded, powerful character."
Godollei said Caponi was the person who got the Janet Wallace Fine Arts Center built at Macalester in 1964 and persuaded administrators to install a bronze foundry and compressed air tools to carve stone — advanced equipment at the time.
He insisted that fine arts was a necessary piece of a liberal arts education, and under his tutelage, it became a requirement in the 1960s, she said. He was a mentor to many who have since become noted artists.
All the while, he would take his students to the land to show them that art exists everywhere, Cheryl Caponi said.
Long before Eagan became a city, Caponi was a protector of the land. After his retirement from Macalester, he focused on his dream and vision for the Caponi Art Park.
"He wanted to make sure development never happened in that space," said Juli Seydell Johnson, Parks and Recreation director for Eagan and member of the Art Park's board.
"Tony would sculpt from what he found and what he felt the land was telling him," Seydell Johnson said. "Fifteen years ago, a windstorm blew down lots of trees. Tony saw that as an opportunity to build an amphitheater in the woods." Called Theater in the Woods, it now holds a summer performance, music and art series.
Besides his wife, Caponi is survived by his children Mary Ann, Carina, Remo, Ramolo, Renata and Rosanna; two brothers; and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
A private memorial service will be held. A celebration of Caponi's life will be held in the spring at the Caponi Art Park amphitheater.Details will be posted on the park's website, www.caponiartpark.org.