By Melissa Ximena Golebiowski
Heather Coppinger has a quiet energy surrounding her. There is something calming to be found in most of her mannerisms, the way she speaks and, especially, in the way she listens. She listens without you having to say anything. Coppinger is patient as I prepare a bottle for my son whom I’ve brought to our interview out of necessity. She sits and waits with the face I’ve often seen her wear, a resting smile — a stark contrast to my baby’s cries.
“Take your time,” she tells me.
This demeanor of hers compliments Coppinger’s artistic process. In the chaos of her recent world, a cross country move to Los Angeles with her and her boyfriend’s belongings packed into the back of their car, Coppinger still does not plan or coordinate her art beforehand. She is both the artist and observer. She sits and waits and lets it come.
Coppinger grew up in Southeast Michigan, the suburbs of Detroit. Though she has moved, it has only been throughout the area so her relocation to Los Angeles is a significant one. As we chat about her hometown, she tells me that her grandfather, Robert Dillaber, created many vivid childhood memories for her with his found object assemblage works.
“He’s always been pretty extravangant. He was in the news for having a human dollhouse. You would walk in and each area was its own creative wonderland. We would go upstairs to his room and it was filled with stuffed animals and we’d just jump in.”
Coppinger credits her grandfather’s eccentric art with an influence on her own creative side. If anything, it granted her permission to pursure a career in art. Dillaber also introduced Coppinger to Common Ground, a non-profit focused on aiding those in crisis, where he volunteers by hosting art therapy workshops. In 2015, Coppinger showed her artwork alongside her grandfather in an exhibit entitled The Healing Power of the Arts. The pieces on display were accompanied by the artist’s stories on how creating art helps them.
“I think along with painting, my other passion is mental health awareness. I feel as if many people have this, or maybe they don’t, maybe it’s just me, but it’s this constant feeling like ‘I want to fix, I want to fix myself, I want to fix myself’, fixing what’s not broken.”
The idea of art and its connection with the mind has been something that has always interested Coppinger. How embracing the emotions she has when beginning a piece can influence her process. She often begins with an initial feeling and a color palette that is fitting of what she’d like to express. She then sees what world is created on the canvas. Sometimes she’ll plan out the type of feeling she’d like to emote but mainly sticks with the organic. Sometimes she finds herself in a different mindset and she’ll revisit a piece and think, “I have to change all the colors” and then she does.
“It’s a constant of act of trusting myself that it’s going to work,” she says of this process. “Sometimes I will have a huge image in the middle of the painting and just paint black all over it. It can be very upsetting but I get it, it’s the direction the painting is moving in.”
Sometimes the feeling changes when these drastic edits occur but Coppinger explains that she implements these changes because she feels whatever the painting has been trying to convey is not being achieved with the current palatte. Coppinger finds her perservence in these moments, especially working with oil, by knowing that once she works through whatever this phase is, after she gets over the hump, she will feel much better and there will be another level of excitement.
“It’s just like, life,” she says with a smile.
“It is,” I reply.
Coppinger has drawn on and off her whole life but didn’t start cultivating her art in a more serious way until her 20’s while she was working as a caregiver. She would draw in her downtime and share her doodles with the person she was caring for at the time. As Coppinger reflects on this period, her fingers hold an imginary pen and she mimics drawing on a pad. “Oh, you’re good, you should keep going!” she remembers one of her elders saying, a woman who would continue to encourage Coppinger to pursue her talent. Soon afterwards, she enrolled in Oakland University where she graduated Cum Laude in Studio Art.
I ask Coppinger to describe her art in one sentence and she trims it to three words — otherworldly painted landscapes. She loves the idea of different dimensions and realms, quantum physics. Looking at her work, the otherworldlyness is evident. Something that looks like its coming together while simultaneously falling apart. There is a possibility that I could find myself in one of these landscapes, almost dreamscapes, Coppinger has created. Occasionally mythical creatures are found within these invented worlds but they still feel grounded in reality.
Many of Coppinger’s earlier pieces presented a more somber undertone, which she says ties into the medium she was using. Pen ink tends to bring about a darkness that Coppinger wouldn’t otherwise attribute to herself. She eventually gravitated towards oil paint and has spent the better part of this year experimenting with watercolor and acrylic.
“I will obsess over one [medium] for awhile and go back to something else. A big part of my work [medium choice] is the process that I paint in, I never have a plan when I start out, it’s much more just expressive painting and then I’m finding the image while I’m painting and oil doesn’t really lend itself to that much.”
The stamina of continuing art or a piece is perhaps innate to an artist though also needs a certain nurturing. Her own patience evident in her work, but Coppinger shares with me her observations of the artistic capabilities of others when she hosted “Drink and Draw” gatherings at her apartment back in Michigan.
“You just have to finish it, it doesn’t have to be good, you just have to finish it,” she would say.
She believes that many of us have undiscovered creative capabilities.
“It was the most fun I’ve had with people but it was interesting because these people would say they weren’t creative but you would look at their finished piece and see they had a style. If they developed it or kept going, it would be a specific style.”
Coppinger has shown her work at various galleries throughout Michigan but still feels very fresh to showcasing her art. She was Bombay Artisian series semifinalist in 2017. She is currently working on a collaborative mural with LA Grip. Her work recently caught the eye of Kyle Cease of Evolving Out Loud when he spoke to her about creativity blocks on his podcast. When she told him she was an artist, he pulled up her art online and was so taken with it that he purchased an orginal piece.
Coppinger shows me pieces from her current project, a series of paintings complimented by a short narrative.
“I feel like I’m illustrating a book that I haven’t written.”
“It’s a two piece process. The act of painting is letting go and whatever happens, happens and then there is the meditation piece when it comes to the writing and discovering what it all means. Step back and look at the emotion and then write about it. It’s interesting because then you’ll look at somthing as time passes and you realize more of what it meant as you distance yourself from that space in your life.”
Coppinger shows me some completed works as well as in progress. An image in which the blue is defined heavy by ink reminds me of an underwater landscape, I think that perhaps I am looking at it with the wrong side up because the deeper I look, the more I see that it could be turned around. When I turn it around, I find myself turning it to the side, then flipping it once more. I swirl the painting around as if it is a vortex pulling me in. I turn to Coppinger for direction and ask which side is meant to be up.
“I often turn them as I paint,” she says. There is no right or wrong. It is the viewer’s preference, all sides could be up.
The ink is something Coppinger adds in to refine the piece. It gives the effect of waves but they could also be blue stones, similar to stalagmites growing from all angles of a cave. Coppinger has told me that she cites inspiration from the work of Inka Essenhigh, Peter Doig, Salvador Dalí, Dr. Seuss, and Van Gogh. I can see these inspirations when looking at her pieces. Undoubtedly, her work exudes a place that could exist in either a dream or reality. Viewer’s choice.
We chat about politically driven art, especially within the current climate. I ask her about the deliberateness of poltical art.
“I appreciate seeing it, but I don’t like feel like I have the heart for it to continue to make myself feel something that I don’t enjoy but that’s where I’m torn because I know it’s important to speak up.”
Coppinger’s art is not meant to bring a call to action, she is not a person of conflict. I talk with her about how there are artists that rile and artists that soothe — a fire and water balance. Coppinger’s images bring about that calmness that is so much apart of her aura. They are water in the sense of how the ocean can create an immense serenity but when there is a storm, the waves build and become choppy.
The last image Coppinger shows me is an older work, one she started with the intention of gifting it to the eldery woman she cared for, the one whose enthusiasm Coppinger remembers so well. When she brings out the piece, I provide my own interpretation — the floral apocalypse. The oil painting is filled with orange and yellow light reflecting on what appears to be a field of flowers which has little distinction from the sky. It almost looks as if there is a portal in the center, either pulling the flowers into it or pushing them out from within. Coppinger tells me it is a field of flowers that she planned on creating, with the elderly woman standing among them. But during Coppinger’s artistic process, allowing the artwork to change direction, the woman is not seen in the final piece.
“She was right there,” Coppinger points to an area in the center left of the painting.
In my own imagination, I see Coppinger outlining the image, choosing the colors and painting layers of flowers. The flowers multiplying until they grow over the woman. She’s still in the painting to me, as if through Coppinger’s hand the field had come alive. A significant existence succumbing to the passage of time and the change that accompanies it. A statue in an untended garden, a tree concealed by moss, a wooden fence engulfed by vines. She is no longer visible, but I know she is there.
To learn more about Heather Coppinger’s artwork please visit www.heathercoppinger.com or follow her on social media at heathercoppingerart.