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Penn Art & Culture Spotlight: Gina DeCagna

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Penn Art & Culture Spotlight: Gina DeCagna

Name: Gina DeCagna
Hometown: Cranford, NJ
Majors: English, Creative Writing and Fine Arts
Class: 2016


Gina DeCagna’s original visual artworks have been exhibited throughout Penn’s campus — recently in a comprehensive two-person exhibition inaugurating the new Penn-curated gallery space at Saxbys Coffee at 40th and Locust Streets, in a solo show at the Philomathean Society Gallery, and in the Charles Addams Fine Arts Gallery, Fox Art Gallery, Brodsky Gallery, The Inn at Penn, Penn Education Commons, Houston Hall, and Rodin College House, among others. Before coming to Penn, DeCagna considered herself shy and hesitant. However, at the onset of her freshman year, she was driven to make her voice amply heard, her work largely visible, and her presence keenly felt.
 

“It’s really important to put yourself out there as an artist, writer, or any type of creative practitioner. So much of it has to do with performance and self-confidence — knowing when to project the ego and when to sit back. The creative world is a lot about showing up and putting yourself out there — it’s about strategically taking risks.”
 

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    • DeCagna performing as a solo artist before 14,000 students and alumni at Penn's Time to Shine Campaign Celebration on April 19, 2013. This event featured a concert with performances from Train and John Legend at Penn Park. Photo: Ayla Fudala.

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    • Penn's Time to Shine Campaign Celebration, April 19, 2013. 

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    • DeCagna's work in the drawing studio of Charles Addams Fine Arts Hall, Spring 2014.

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    • DeCagna's solo exhibition at the Philomathean Society Gallery featuring her photographic prints, Fall 2015.

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    • DeCagna's artwork being photographed by a visitor to the Fall 2015 Penn Art Club exhibition within Fox Art Gallery. Photo: Penn Art & Culture.

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    • DeCagna's work in a two-person exhibit with fine arts major Terrill Warrenburg in the gallery space of Saxbys Coffee at 40th and Locust Streets, curated by the Penn Fine Arts Department, Fall 2015. Photo: Wing Dyana So.

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The first place DeCagna fondly recalls visiting at Penn was the Kelly Writers House where she was initiated into the literary community as an advisee of Jamie-Lee Josselyn, Associate Director for Recruitment at the Center for Programs in Contemporary Writing. Josselyn encouraged DeCagna to propose her idea for starting a new hybrid literary and visual art magazine, which she entitled Symbiosis, at the first Kelly Writers House Hub meeting. This was something she had passionately proposed in her Early Decision application essay to Penn. This publication would not use art as secondary decorative or illustrative material to the writing like most magazines, but instead integrated it as equally central to the comprehension of all the content. Her proposal was selected for the fulfillment of the Creative Ventures Fund of the Kelly Writers House with the additional encouragement of Kelly Writers House Director Jessica Lowenthal.

Within her first year at Penn, DeCagna, as the editor-in-chief, and a staff of fellow Penn students, published the first annual issue of Symbiosis, featuring art and writing collaborations produced, edited, and curated by Penn students. In coming years, under DeCagna’s leadership, Symbiosis would engage hundreds of students’ participation and include student-curated gallery shows in the Brodsky Gallery of the Kelly Writers House. According to DeCagna, steering the vision of Symbiosis and developing it as an innovative arts and culture student group and publication has been her most fulfilling experience at Penn.
 

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    • The Symbiosis staff of the 2013-2014 academic year on the steps of Fisher Fine Arts Library. Photo: Christian Hopkins.

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    • A Symbiosis discussion workshop in Fall 2013 in the Kelly Writers House with the first annual issue, released in Spring 2013. Photo: Christian Hopkins.

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    • DeCagna leading a Symbiosis discussion workshop in Fall 2013 in the Kelly Writers House. Photo: Christian Hopkins.

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    • Print copies of the second annual issue of Symbiosis, released in Spring 2014, spread in the Kelly Writers House.

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    • Visitors holding copies of the third annual issue of Symbiosis at the release and Brodsky Gallery opening in the Kelly Writers House, Spring 2015. Photo: Carpus Tin.

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Symbiosis, DeCagna explains, has become the central intellectual, artistic, and professional framework of her time at Penn, as she has balanced coursework in the Fine Arts and English majors with a concentration in Creative Writing — up until her current senior year, in which she is completing a thesis in each major and integrating them conceptually.
 

“I’m interested in integrated content and the impact of multisensory experiences across medium, across genre, to one’s cognitive processing. This is very much part of the contemporary moment to embrace interdisciplinarity — it’s what museums, galleries, literary venues, and entertainment spaces are trying to achieve for greatest impact, and it significantly, though not in whole, is fueled by today’s personalized technology revolution.
 

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    • DeCagna introducing her large-scale public artist book—a project awarded and funded under the 2014-2015 Kerry Sherin Wright Prize in the Kelly Writers House, Spring 2015. 

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    • Documentation of the aftermath of the public's writing and drawing engagement with DeCagna's public artist book—a project awarded and funded under the 2014-2015 Kerry Sherin Wright Prize in the Kelly Writers House, Spring 2015. 

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    • A artist and writer duo of Symbiosis explain their multimedia collaboration before an audience in the Kelly Writers House, Spring 2014. Photo: Wing Dyana So.

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    • A artist and writer duo of Symbiosis reference their multimedia collaboration while explaining it before an audience in the Kelly Writers House, Spring 2015. Photo: Carpus Tin.

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    • "Word and Song," an event DeCagna promoted in her role as a Digital Communications and Marketing Assistant at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia. Composer Mary Lattimore played the harp in response to exhibiting artist Becky Suss' paintings along with stories read by author Jim Shepard, Fall 2015. Photo: Jill Katz.

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    • DeCagna assisted with the Fall 2015 "Free for All" at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, featured visual artist, DJ, and activist Juliana Huxtable playing experimental music in the gallery spaces. Photo: Liz Barr.

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    • A visitor to the Christopher Knowles: In a Word exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia watches and listens to a film in the gallery space, Fall 2015. Photo: Penn Art & Culture.

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Penn’s renowned English literature and creative writing faculty captivated DeCagna from the start. She cites the first time she felt she truly understood poetry in a modernist course with the eminent poet Charles Bernstein, Donald T. Regan Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Penn — who became her academic adviser and creative writing honors thesis adviser — as an intellectually life-changing experience. She also took several courses with History of the Book scholar Peter Stallybrass, completing her own hands-on primary research on manuscripts that fascinated her for their rich literary content, images, visual design, and material construction in the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts. DeCagna was also particularly impacted by the Kelly Writers House Fellows seminar taught by Al Filreis, which she took during the spring of her sophomore year. In this seminar, she read all the works of three distinguished contemporary authors who then personally visited the class and gave readings — bestowing generous wisdom on what it takes to live the life of a dedicated writer.
 

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    • Students of Charles Bernstein's Experimental Writing Seminar (English 111) listen to a classmate reciting his poetry while experiencing an installation of the Christopher Knowles: In a Word exhibition at the Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, Fall 2015.

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    • Students of Charles Bernstein's Experimental Writing Seminar (English 111) use their lap tops to respond collaboratively to each other's work while simultaneously following the orchestral directions of one student leader, Fisher-Bennett Hall, Fall 2015.

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    • The Francis Daniel Pastorious "Beehive" Manuscript at the Kislak Center for Special Collections, Rare Books and Manuscripts, which DeCagna helped transcribe and complete primary research on under scholar Peter Stallybrass.

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    • Al Filreis with poet Rae Armantrout at her reading to the public as a Spring 2014 Fellow of the Kelly Writers House. Photo: Penn Art & Culture.

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During her sophomore year, DeCagna declared the Fine Arts major alongside her English major upon realizing how many studio courses she was taking each semester. Her inclinations always drew her to back to drawing because of how it fluidly showcases an artist’s thought process. Among numerous award-winning PennDesign faculty in varied visual art and design disciplines, she gratefully cites Joan Wadleigh Curran as a strong mentor of her drawing ability in conjunction with her conceptual development — along with Ivanco Talevski, who also challenged her, especially in an etching course where she learned applying printmaking techniques to her drawings.
 

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    • Gina DeCagna. A Waltz with Time (This Mortal Coil), graphite on vellum, copper and steel wire, 2015. Approximately 8 x 7 feet. Installation view at Saxbys Gallery UPenn. 

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    • DeCagna before her organic sculpture in the Fine Arts Senior Thesis Preview exhibition, 23 Individual Works of Art, Charles Addams Gallery, Fall 2015. Photo: Penn Art & Culture.

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    • The Fine Arts Senior Thesis Preview exhibition, 23 Individual Works of Art, Charles Addams Gallery, Fall 2015. Photo: Dyana Wing So.

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    • DeCagna before her piece, A Waltz with Time (This Mortal Coil), graphite on vellum, copper and steel wire, 2015. Photo: Dyana Wing So.

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    • Gina DeCagna. The Resuscitation, paper, plastic, and wire; a time-based installation within a 20th-century West Philadelphian house demolished on March 10, 2016.

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Meanwhile, preprofessionally, she was completing editorial internships and assistantships for several magazines that gave her varied writing and editing experience for both national and international audiences. By her senior year, she had worked in editorial and curatorial roles at the Kelly Writers House, Institute of Contemporary Art Philadelphia, Morgan Library & Museum, Slought Foundation, Meredith Corporation, and UrbanGlass.
 

“The hard part is having the courage to really say that you don’t want to be part of the conventional or popular path to success — that [as an artist and writer] you want to be doing things that not everyone else is doing, and acknowledging that these things do not necessarily guarantee ‘success’ as most people will traditionally understand it.”
 

During the fall semester of her junior year, DeCagna studied abroad at King’s College London via an exchange with the Penn English department, which she also cites as a life-changing experience for exposing her to international cultures and making her more aware of being a global citizen. Specifically, she recalls independently spending the semester’s reading week traveling in Barcelona, where she was amazed by the Spanish Impressionist and Modernist artworks in the Museu Nacional d’Art de Catalunya. However, the museum that resonated most was Barcelona’s Museu Picasso, which housed an extensive collection of Pablo Picasso’s earliest work.
 

“I felt very moved by seeing [Picasso’s] cognitive development in his artworks, because of where I was in my own student life trying to connect my intellectual inclinations with outside pressures. In that museum, I decided I was going to pursue my own creative path and not regret it, because it’s worth the risk if you really want to change the world.”
 

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    • DeCagna on the set of The Today Show on the morning of receiving an award from the New York Women in Communications for her work in writing, editing, and publishing among industry icons at the 2014 Matrix Awards that featured feminist activist Gloria Steinem, among others, in the Waldorf Astoria, New York.

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    • DeCagna with the first issue of The Paris Review on the historic balcony of Pierpont Morgan's library, New York. Photo: Graham S. Haber © The Morgan Library & Museum, 2015.

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    • Museu Picasso, Barcelona.

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    • The Fall 2014 London Art Book Fair, Whitechapel Gallery, London. Photo: Gina DeCagna.

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    • The Strand—a main avenue in London where King's College London's humanities buildings were located, Fall 2014. Photo: Gina DeCagna.

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Interview and top banner photo by Dyana Wing T. So. 

Edited by Mariah Macias.