Philomenaís Phabulous Paper Portraits of Coney Island

Freefalling Parachutes in "Clock and Chute" (1981)

The "American-Dream-Land" Series by Philomena Marano

As seen in "Brooklyn Skyline," 11/26/02

By RICK PALLEY

For the first time in her life, Philomena Marano is actually afraid to go to Coney Island.

Not that the Bensonhurst native wasnít a little frightened when, as a child, she first saw the weird rides, heard the strident call of the barkers over the microphones, and experienced the dank gloom under the boardwalk.

Or, for that matter, concerned when, years later, she returned as an artist to the not-so-safe streets of Coney in the late 1970s, attracted by the raffish charm of its tumbledown shacks and bright colors of the boardwalk amusements.

No, this time it isnít the Torture Chamber or street crime thatís worrying her -- itís a newspaper photo of the decapitated Parachute Jump thatís got her down.

"Iíve been loving and admiring that structure since I was really little and to see

the photo of no crown on top is really disturbing," Marano said in an interview at her Park Slope home. (She was wearing a silver Parachute Jump necklace, complete with four tiny canopies in descent, during the interview.)

Marano is worried that the landmark ride, which has been partly dismantled while undergoing a $5 million dollar renovation, could somehow wind up suffering the same fate as the Thunderbolt roller coaster, which the city suddenly demolished two years ago.

When you see her artwork, itís easy to understand her concern.

Marano has been working on and off for more than 20 years on "American-Dream-Land," a stunningly beautiful series of large papier collť (cut-paper) pieces that celebrate, in her words, " the fun and the fear, the divine and the profane, the highs and the lows" of Coney Island.

One of the first in the series, "Clock & Chute," (1981) features the electric red-and-yellow latticework of the Parachute Jump, along with two white parachutes mysteriously drifting free, silhouetted against a blue/violet sky. Nearby, the handless face of a clock urges us to "Have a Coke."

"Itís kind of like a mix of hope and loss, because you donít know if the parachutes are leaving forever or returning," Marano said.

The Parachute Jump also appears in the night sky of "Lionelís Chair," a jaunty yet sentimental tribute to both the departed Thunderbolt and to Lionel Butler, the night watchman who, with the help of two dogs and a shotgun, guarded the ride in its last days.

"He had this air of dignity about him," said Marano, who got to know the old man before the roller coaster was razed. "I used to think about him being there all night under a starry sky; itís almost like this roller coaster is his throne."

Butlerís actual throne, a dilapidated office chair, is framed in a rectangle of yellow light in the lower right corner of the work, dwarfed by the arching white skeleton of the ride.

Almost as impressive as the art itself is the amount of work that went into making it.

Marano cut every object and detail in "Lionelís Chair," from the large forms like the black night sky, to the tiny red letters on the street signs, after tracing them out on the back of Color Aid paper. Then she carefully glued them into place, working from the background out.

The vivid colors of the layered paper positively vibrate against each other, infusing Maranoís art with great visual energy heightened by the knife-edged contrast of the cut pieces.

Marano first learned the papier collť process while working with Pop Art icon Robert Indiana shortly after she graduated from Pratt Institute in 1976. It was around that time that she first revisited Coney Island and decided to portray it in cut paper.

"I looked around at the erector set skyline, the bold graphics, the color, the tension and form and I said Ďthis is a perfect gestalt technique, a marriage of technique and subject matter," Marano said.

Not to mention that the bumper cars, ferris wheels, boardwalk signs and shooting galleries of Coney were perfect Pop Art subjects -- elements of our everyday life that are raised to another level in art, like Andy Warholís famous Campbellís soup cans.

Speaking of which, Marano is also working on two new series, a "Sweet Suite" featuring single images of tasty treats like popcorn, jelly apples, and Juji Fruit, and a collection of citified street scenes she is calling "New Urban Images."

But donít expect her to forget about the magical place where she spent the summers of her childhood playing under the shadow of the Parachute Jump.

"I still have so many pieces I need to do," Marano said. "Itís all there Ė how can I ever stop doing images of Coney Island?"

Philomena Maranoís work can be found in the collections of The Museum of the City of New York and the Brooklyn Historical Society, and will soon be coming to the big screen, decorating the walls of Hugh Grant and Sandra Bullockís apartments in the movie, "Two Weeks Notice," scheduled for a December 20th release. She is also featured in Charles Densonís fascinating new book, "Coney Island Lost and Found." (Ten Speed Press)

To view or purchase prints of Philomena Maranoís "American-Dream-Land" series, visit www.philo-mania.com. You can also see her work at Art Wise Gallery, 443 4th Street in Park Slope. (718) 788-0791