Painting The Town

By Ken Mammarella

Christian Kanienberg is surrounded by art and art supplies in his painting studio: works in progress, finished works, salvaged works, purchased works, gifted works and treasures-to-be rescued from the trash. More items overflow into his metal and carpentry shops, and the land outside.

Yes, this mélange — which includes four skulls, three saws, Native American artifacts, a book titled Hotel Kitsch and a glow-in-the-dark portrait of Marvin the Martian — just appeals to him and might also inspire him to craft sculptures from found objects, which is just one of his artistic disciplines. Others include metalwork, carpentry, furniture, portraits, murals and design.

But he is inspired much more by music. “I cannot really operate without my earbuds in,” the artist says, ticking off his favorite genres: old country, house, metal, rock, singer-songwriter.

“Sometimes the stuff that’s really meaty in terms of content lyrically will inform my art. I try to emulate the depth,” he says. “I can go back to [Philadelphia] Flower Show exhibits and tell you almost like a soundtrack to what I was listening to.”

Take the 2018 show, with “the wonders of water” theme.

“Uncharacteristically, I chose to address climate change, specifically with flooding. There’s a Nick Cave song about the birth of Elvis in a hurricane. I got the chance to see Nick Cave earlier that year, and the backdrop of that song was literally a hurricane. Black and white palm trees, bent over and blowing in the wind. It was such a horrifying kind of image, but it was very beautiful in the context of the song. Oftentimes, my aesthetic is finding beauty in things that may not be excessively attractive.”

He was only 3 or 4 when he showed early artistic promise, which his parents encouraged through lessons before he enrolled at the College of Design, Art, Architecture and Planning at the University of Cincinnati.

“My eyes were opened wide by the fields of study that included sculpture, video, writing and poetry,” he writes on his website:

A wide-open career followed graduation, starting with a co-op involving mold-making, casting, sculpting and mural work at the Cincinnati Zoo and Botanical Garden. Later jobs included being on the fabrication team of DeLuco Architectural Metals, working as a landscape design draftsman and serving as a sculptor and project manager with Chicago-based Skyline Design — creating and installing works in aquariums, themed restaurants and casinos.

He moved to Delaware in 1999, working for five years at Weber-Prianti Scenic Studio, painting theatrical sets and crafting items for trade shows and museums. In 2004, he launched his own full-time business, Wish Painting and Sculpture. He is now based out of Bellefonte.

“I love using Wilmington as our hub for both work and fun,” he says, referring to his wife, Leisa, a makeup artist, and children Owen and Vivien. “We’re constantly up in New York, and Philadelphia feels like our backyard.”

Yet Wilmington feels like “a safe space” in cost of living, yet boasting good restaurants and a growing art scene.

Kanienberg has moved beyond working on spec, designing exhibits for the Philadelphia Flower Show and buying and selling artifacts. He now focuses on commercial art (“a conduit for somebody else’s idea”) and commissions (“There’s no directive,” he says. “It’s just like ‘We want you to design something for our garden based on your established aesthetic.’ ”).

He designs, builds and installs works almost entirely by himself, using Sherwin-Williams exterior paint and Behr (really!) interior paint.

Sculptures include a steel owl, located in a tree at the Russell W. Peterson Wildlife Refuge in Wilmington.

Murals include “First State Farmscape” (at Stanton ShopRite), which at 5,000 square feet is Delaware’s largest mural; the 2023 Welcome to Wilmington Mural (Delaware Avenue bridge, Wilmington); the Junior Achievement of Delaware building entrance façade (Wilmington); the Delaware Discoveries Trail Mural (Cape May-Lewes Ferry terminal, Lewes); the County Police and EMT Lobby Murals at the Paul Sweeney Public Safety Building (Wilmington); and the “Touchstone” Discover Mural (Walnut Street YMCA, Wilm.).

Capano Management has commissioned six murals from Kanienberg: two in Trolley Square, two at The Falls in Wilmington, one at Branmar Wine and Spirits in North Wilmington and “The Phoenix,” in Phoenixville, Pennsylvania.

“He has a natural gift for creating stunning pieces,” says Zachary Busby, Capano’s marketing director, sharing a video on the making of the last one, five stories tall. “He’s also professional and reliable and understands deadlines and budgets. And he’s a nice dude.”

Kanienberg’s latest project is a mural on a prominent 200-foot-long retaining wall on Marsh Road in North Wilmington, near the I-95 interchange. The wall supports athletic fields at Mt. Pleasant High. Principal Curi Calderón-Lacy wanted to celebrate the school’s culture and diversity, and he wanted to venture beyond “the cliche array of human forms with different skin colors.” He chose birds.

“Some of the birds are solo. Some are engaged in flying side by side. Some look like they’re almost having a conversation. So there’s some humor in it,” Kanienberg says. “But there are also multiple layers to it.”

“Really good murals tell a story,” he explains in that video on “The Phoenix.”

The Marsh Road mural does not feature the school mascot, the green knight. “There might be an Easter egg to something medieval, but it’s going to be very subtle,” he adds.

“It’s called ‘Eclectic Flock,’ (little bit of a riff on electric shock). I tend to prefer poetic titles.”

“The mural seemed like a wonderful way to bring the community together and beautify an otherwise plain wall,” says state Rep. Deb Heffernan. “The mural has already generated positive conversations and compliments within our communities.”

The project was mostly funded by Heffernan and Sen. Sarah McBride using their Community Transportation Funds, Heffernan says. The funding was made possible because the wall is in the Delaware Department of Transportation right of way.

“CTF funding provides a fixed amount of funds annually to each State Senator and House Representative to be used as they and their constituents believe is best for transportation improvements within their district,” DelDOT explains.

New Castle County Council member John Cartier says that he and Tony Benson, his social media coordinator, approached the Brandywine School District and Heffernan with the idea.

“The mural will provide an attractive gateway feature into the eastern Brandywine Hundred communities,” says Cartier, adding that he is offering a small grant for it as well. “There is another potential mural project under consideration on the large concrete wall on Silverside Road at the I-95 overpass.”

The mural will somehow include the Limmina family, who taught and coached at Mount from 1965 to 2020, says Benson, a musician lately inspired to beautify the community. His nonprofit, Protecting Our Parks, focused first on revitalizing playgrounds and making them more inclusive. He is in talks for a mural for Bob Marley in Wilmington and a basketball court for Knollwood, north of Claymont.

Kanienberg told students and staff at Mount “that I thrive on doing things that are vintage-inspired, or with animals,” he says. “I always cater to the client, but when left to my own devices I do a lot with metaphor. So they allowed me to run off and do something that wasn’t run-of-the-mill. It’s more like a landmark that serves the community, not just the high school. A neighborhood ID. A point of pride. A morale booster. All from one piece of art.”