September 8, 2013 12:27:40 AM
Jan Swoope - [email protected]
Not so long ago, Caterina Mendolicchio was studying and photographing the splendid architecture of the Neue Nationalgalerie in Berlin, the Chiesa dei Gesuati church in Venice and other stunning structures in storied cities like Milan, Sicily, Edinburgh and her hometown of Rimini, Italy.
The licensed architect, professional photographer, graphic designer and illustrator has lived on three continents, likes heavy metal, and describes herself as a "voracious hunter-gatherer" -- of art, books and graphic culture.
She is a workaholic, fueled by relentless curiosity and imagination. In February, however, Mendolicchio found herself with time on her hands. That's the month she arrived in Columbus with her pilot husband, Andrea, to begin a year stationed at Columbus Air Force Base as part of an exchange student pilot program with the Italian Air Force.
Unable to work as an architect in the United States because her license is Italian, the petite artiste with dark, flashing eyes decided to focus on "side projects" to stay creative and active during her time in Mississippi. One of those projects has turned out to be paper dolls -- whimsical paper portraits, one-of-a-kind keepsakes.
It happened almost by chance.
In a new town, with few acquaintances and plenty of free time, Mendolicchio dusted off her considerable freehand drawing skills. The resulting paper dolls representing Caterina and Andrea on their wedding day (they were married in 2012), and in casual clothes, were framed and displayed in their home.
Later, a dinner guest spotted the charming figures and almost immediately gave Mendolicchio her first paper doll commission.
"That is the reason I started; it began with an anniversary gift," she smiled. "This is a way to use my creative and technical skills, a way not to lose my 'craftiness'."
Making it personal
As word of Mendolicchio's whimsical paper portraits has spread, her waiting list has grown. The unique, delicate figures intended for framing or shadow boxing have become especially popular for celebrating weddings, birthdays, graduations, anniversaries and other family occasions.
Her first requirement to create a paper doll is a head-on facial photograph of each person to be represented. A head-to-toe photo is very helpful, too.
"I ask for a very detailed description of what you want the people to wear -- including colors, brands if they are very peculiar, any special jewelry, hair-dos ... " explained the portraitist. "I want them (the clients) to be very involved."
Each figure is hand-drawn on heavy 140-pound watercolor paper and painted with professional-grade inks, which blend well and resist fading. A two-person portrait takes one to three days, depending on the details requested, such as banners or hobby props, like cameras. Prices generally start at $26 to $30 for a couple and a small child or pet. The largest group she has done to date had nine people and pets. She will soon tackle a commission with 10 people and four dogs.
Adapting to the Deep South
Mendolicchio prides herself on adaptability, a trait borne of frequent travel and new environments. Her year in Columbus is actually the first time she and Andrea are settled under the same roof for any lengthy period of time.
"We were childhood friends, but we've been apart for years," she said, in richly-accented English. "I lived in Venice, he was at the academy in Naples, I left for Edinburgh (to pursue studies in architecture) ... We've both been living with luggage under the bed; I'm pretty sure we'll put our first-born in luggage as well," she laughed.
While the architect had visited American cities like New York and Boston before, "that was all my knowledge of the U.S.," she admitted. The Deep South is a new experience altogether.
"I like the nature. It is overwhelming ... the big trees. But I am a little bit scared about the size of the bugs. You have mosquitoes this big!" she said, holding up two fingers several inches apart, her eyes wide with humor. "You hear some noise and you think a helicopter is coming; they bite you and it is like a blood test."
Insects aside, the city's historic homes have impressed her.
"As an architect I was astonished at the architecture," emphasized Mendolicchio, who volunteered as a hostess during the 2012 Columbus Spring Pilgrimage. "The most astonishing thing is all the details in wood. I live in a nation where everything is thick brick and stone."
In the months to come, she will capture many of those architectural details in a fresh photographic journey through antebellum homes on the Pilgrimage Tour. The photographs will be the subject of a Columbus Arts Council gallery exhibit in April at the Rosenzweig Arts Center.
Where you are
Mendolicchio believes "community" is where you are and is immersing herself in the area in other ways as well.
She has taken animal photographs for the Columbus-Lowndes Humane Society to use in adoption promos (she and Andrea adopted their "Ozzy" from the local shelter). CAFB has a new pilot-themed interior mural thanks to her skills, and she is active in the International Spouses' group. She teaches a drawing class for the Mississippi University for Women Life Enrichment Program, and those out for the art walk Thursday in Columbus may have seen her displayed work at Hollyhocks Gift Shop.
Still, many of Mendolicchio's hours are filled with paper doll portraits she makes under her label, La Catrina, using the shortened version of her name. Investing herself in each expression and detail to create a keepsake she hopes will bring never-ending smiles to families is warmly satisfying.
"I want them to be happy," she shared. "Enthusiastic and happy clients are the best balm for the soul."
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Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.