Artist Philomena Marano will never forget those first spine-tingling moments on the famous Wonder Wheel Ferris wheel at Coney Island in New York City—that slow crank of gears and the swing of the passenger cars rising up, until the whole park reveals itself in a riot of color and sound. “I remember how the light fractured through the spokes,” she recalls of those sky-high jaunts. As a child growing up in Brooklyn, these thrill ride experiences became “another world we could disappear into for hours. It was true escapism.”
She brings this same Wonder Wheel perspective to her prismatic art, reimagining these spectacles in intricate and painstaking layers of cut paper. Part observation and part emotive expression, these works explore landscapes both magical and mundane: from amusement park attractions to roadside tire shops. Since moving to Sarasota in 2017, the city’s circus roots also have become central to her visual language, with recent pieces featuring the death-defying feats of famed local circus family, the Nerveless Nocks.
Marano first developed her signature style as a studio assistant for artist Robert Indiana. She refined her cut paper method while creating maquettes for the costumes and sets he designed for the 1976 opera, The Mother of Us All. The process felt intuitive for Marano, inspired by memories of her father working in the printing industry as a stripper—a role responsible for cutting and arranging film negatives to prepare printing plates. “I feel I inherited the ability to cut from him,” notes the artist, who quickly realized the technique’s artistic potential. The sharp, geometric dimensionality of cutting felt “so in tune with erect skylines and whirling rides.”
Each piece represents real places either sketched or photographed on site. She then translates these preliminary images into enlarged master tracings that serve as a foundation. Moving from background to foreground, she builds each work by individually cutting and layering shapes corresponding to the original tracing. “My practice is like painting with paper, and the X-Acto knife is my implement,” she explains. For the paper itself, the artist only uses Color-aid paper to create her signature Technicolor vibrancy. “These are like the colors you find on a sunny day walking on the beach or through Coney Island’s wild rides.”
Through referential, her final compositions also aim to refine the original space to convey the emotional sense of being there. For example, in her piece Vortex of Doom depicting the Nerveless Nocks’ acrobatic showcase, she cuts away the supporting structure “because I want viewers to soar. Feel the thrill and titillating fear that catches your breath.”
Infusing this glee into audiences drives the artist in all her works, which will next be on display at the Ringling College of Art and Design’s upcoming show “American Collage: 1930 to Present,” opening February 26. Marano most loves that moment when a viewer discovers that what first seems like a flat print from afar is actually a tangible, multidimensional image they can enter and explore. “That’s when the fun house door swings open, and they are on a thrill ride.”