Burn survivor finds solace in wood art

Woodworking still acts as therapy for victim of 1979 Paulsboro refinery fire

50 inch round buckeye maple Burl wall pediment (John Capanna/Special to The Sun).

A 1979 Paulsboro oil refinery explosion changed John Capanna’s life drastically: He has since taken ownership of his experiences through woodworking.

Days after the explosion, Capanna learned 90 percent of his body had been burned. Then in his 20s, he endured more than 70 surgeries.

Life before the explosion had been spent on his grandfather’s Washington Township farm, on what is now known as Wedgewood Golf Course.

“You could go wherever you wanted to and I could go out and explore,” he recalled.

But after the refinery accident, Capanna had to depend on his parents far more than most 20-year-olds, what with surgeries and rounds of physical and mental therapy. Independence slowly became a thing of the past and he felt isolated during the ordeal.

His father, Carmen, suggested his son return to woodworking, a hobby he grew to love in high school.

“It gave me something to focus on — hope,” Capanna recalled. “I had felt like at 20, I lost my independence because I had over 75 surgeries and it gave me a sense of freedom and autonomy.”

The former refinery worker held a variety of jobs, one landing him in the real estate business in Mullica Hill during the 1980s. Living in the heart of the town’s historical district, Capanna found himself following in love with the town’s agriculture and getting lost in its history.

Capanna then landed in Shamong, where he kept “taking in the beauty” of farmland and history before settling in Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains.  It was there he sought trauma therapy and bridged a connection with a burn survivors support group at Lehigh Valley Hospital.

With his Involvement in the group, Capanna saw himself as a contributor to its mission and assisted others who sought relating to trauma, drug addiction (Capanna was addicted to pain medication following his surgeries) and reintegration to society. He appeared in a PBS documentary called “Trial by Fire,” and earned accolades for his work with burn survivors inside and outside the support group..

“The fact that I could use what happened to me for other people was invaluable, because it validated my pain and suffering in saying that it was a true thing,” Capanna noted. “It transferred into a service for humanity.”

Then woodworking came a’knockin.’.

In high school, Capanna loved working with woods that are organic and retain the integrity of the lumber. Since then, his creations have included a hanging light monkey pod, a small California olive clock and a “butterfly buckeye maple barrel with black ebony body” to name a few. His work has been displayed in museums like the Harbour View and Majoch art galleries in Pennsylvania.

Capanna has spread his love of wood through commissioned works.

John Capanna works in his shop, creating wood art for the mind to be entrapped in (John Capanna/ Special to The Sun).

“I didn’t get to play a lot (as a child) and this was a time for me to be with myself; I believe the essence of me comes through, which is now a part of the child in me,” Capanna explained. “I don’t really manipulate wood so much to get it to show anything. I don’t have a plan for it when I get started with it.

“I just go with the flow.”

That “flow” has garnered attention from the buying public, though initially Capanna was reluctant to profit from his work. His intent is for others to feel an emotional connection to his work.

With his work as therapy, Capanna said woodworking has helped him along his path to emotionally healing from surgeries, addictions and coming forward with his survivor story. He credits his father with encouraging him to get back into wood art. Capanna spends hours creating furniture, knickknacks and wall decor, among many other items. Some of the work was inspired by his family’s history of making a living with their hands.

Capanna sees himself creating art for others in the way Vincent van Gough and Salvador Dali did, expressing themselves through painting. For Capanna, that expression can be seen in the grains of wood, patterns of stains and a feel for the smoothness in the timber.

“God gives everybody a talent when they’re born, but none of us know what that talent is,” he said. “We have to go out and do different things with our lives to learn what it is.”