Withered and brown, the grass beside the road is dying. The stretch of land just outside the Caponi Art Park and Learning Center in Eagan is technically county property, but that hasn't stopped Tony Caponi from bringing out his hose to try to save the lawn from an early-summer heat wave. It's mid-evening, the humidity has subsided from ghastly to merely sweltering, and, God knows, this job could have waited until tomorrow morning. After a day of hard labor--mowing acre after acre, pulling weeds, digging trenches--the 80-year-old sculptor could definitely use a rest.
But Caponi, founder of the 60-acre art park and sculpture garden, doesn't hesitate in losing a little more sweat. His wide jowls reveal a smile, and every so often he waves to drivers who honk in salute of the well-recognized community figure as they whiz by on the adjacent highway. Many people who pass the park off Diffley Road in the Dakota County suburb may not even be aware of its existence. Nestled into the side of a steep hill and remaining relatively unseen from the highway, the park is a one-of-a-kind wonder that most people from across the Twin Cities have yet to discover. Caponi, who immigrated to this country from Italy when he was 15 years old, purchased the lot in 1949 from a German farmer and quickly went to work on building a home for his family. And he has been cultivating and sculpting the land ever since.
For the past decade, Caponi has been gradually opening up his sanctuary for public use and working with local residents and city officials in hope of preserving the park for future users. His ultimate goal is to sell the park to a nonprofit organization so that he can focus solely on guiding its artistic direction. But in recent years Caponi has perhaps spread himself too thin, trying to squeeze in time for politicking in between pulling weeds and making sculptures, and now his 60-acre dream is in danger of coming apart. In fact, a heavy property-tax burden and dormant fundraising efforts may force Caponi to sell part of his land to housing developers in the ever-land-hungry suburbs within the next year.
"I'm too proud to cry out for help, and I have always wanted to be thought of as someone who does things instead of talks," Caponi remarks in a still-discernible Italian lilt. "But now I want to start talking! I want to get into more programs and teach again and have young apprentices. Most of all, I want to preserve this park for posterity. I know I'm not a superman, though, and I need more help real soon."
To realize how all-encompassing and unique Caponi's vision is, in this Twin Cities suburb or anywhere else, all you have to do is take an afternoon stroll along one of its winding stone paths or dirt roads. Split in half by one of Eagan's busiest highways, the Caponi Art Park remains wholly tranquil, its many hills and thick forest protecting it from extreme noise pollution. You can discover most of Caponi's more than 20 individual sculptures, ranging from abstract stone carvings to compassionate explorations of the human form, on the park's north side in an open space surrounding Caponi's modern house and art studio, which are themselves entrenched in the face of a hill. In the adjacent wooded areas you may come upon other artworks planted here and there in open pockets, tucked away from the major trails.
"I have tried to give (the park) a definite spiritual quality," Caponi says. "Many of the individual sculptures are even hidden throughout the park so that people may discover them. It can be a process of self-discovery as well."
Caponi began to allow local residents to make their own discoveries inside the park in the early Nineties, not long after he retired from a 37-year stint as chair of Macalester College's art department. Today the Caponi Art Park is free and open to the public six days a week throughout the summer, regularly hosts concerts and theater performances, and occasionally houses artists-in-residence and conducts art camps. (The Minnesota Sinfonia will perform at the Caponi Art Park on Sunday, July 15 at 7:30 p.m.) And here's the kicker: Not only does Caponi, along with his second wife, Cheryl, still do the bulk of the work, but heading into his ninth decade, he says he is a ways from fully realizing his artistic vision.
On a clear and balmy summer day, Tony and Cheryl Caponi take an afternoon idler on a tour of the park, first heading toward its more wooded, less developed south side. Although Caponi stands no taller than 5-foot-7, his sturdy arms and large, well-rounded belly enhance his robust bearing. Along the course of the tour it also quickly becomes clear just how obsessively close he feels to every square foot of his land. He cannot walk a hundred yards without passionately bemoaning something to the effect of "Ah, Cheryl, we need to water the grass here!" or "Cheryl, that birch tree is dying!"
"I know, Tony, I know," Cheryl snaps in response to each crisis--one of a hundred she no doubt hears about every day.