A Conversation with Artist April Coppini

The High Desert Museum exhibit The Beauty of Wild Things: Charcoal Drawings by April Coppini is open through June 23, 2019. Coppini’s deep love and respect for the natural world is evident in her large, lifelike drawings of wildlife, from mule deer and foxes to butterflies and bumble bees. The artist hails from a wooded suburb in Rochester, New York but has called Portland home for almost 25 years. Coppini joined us at the Museum in March not long after her exhibit’s opening to speak about her art, life and inspiration. The conversation continues here.

In your new exhibit at the High Desert Museum, your gestural charcoal drawings almost appear to move on paper. Is that an intended element of your artwork?

Only in that I’m trying to capture or convey something of the life of the subject as I draw. So it’s not foremost in my mind as I draw but more of a result of the process, thinking about movement and the life of an animal. And I’m always excited when I step back and the drawing has that feeling of moving, and always slightly disappointed if it appears lifeless and still to me! It’s like a surprise.

Mule Deer Fawn

Living and creating in a city such as Portland, do you ever feel disconnected from the wildlife which you draw? Where do you go to escape the growing city?

I do feel disconnected at times, but I’m lucky enough to rent a house with about a quarter acre which, of course, is overgrown and unkempt from a busy life with kids. So wild things are attracted to the yard. We have chickens, so raccoons like us and coyotes run down our street. A couple of weeks ago a hawk swooped down in the yard about 15 feet from me, grabbed one of our hens (Fern) and dropped her a few seconds later, probably because she was too heavy!

We also live really close to Whitaker Ponds and that’s a favorite place for us. But I miss deer and rabbits and quiet, dark nights where you can see so many stars. So, we go to Astoria or Seaside or Pacific City every few months. We also hike in the Gorge or take the dog to the Sandy or Columbia. We’ve taken family trips to Bend, Cove Palisades and the Sawtooth Mountains in Idaho. One day I hope to get a little cabin somewhere.

Do you ever draw subjects other than wildlife?

Plants! Flowers, people (in my sketchbook), domestic animals, motorcycles for my son.

In your Instagram feed, you shared the honor that comes from displaying your work at the Museum at the same time that we were hosting Rick Bartow: Things You Know But Cannot Explain. What kind of inspiration does the renowned Native artist bring to your work?

Rick’s work speaks to me on a spirit level, like the lines between humans and animals and species blur, and there is spirit, story. And it’s his story but all of our story, too. So, I’m filled with awe and wonder when I visit his work. The colors have an indescribable emotional impact. I feel forces beyond us. So those are things I hope for in my own work, that it might reach people in such a deep way, although differently. His work is also a reminder to play, to enjoy working. I sometimes get too intense and tight, and I’d love to work in color more!

When you spoke with visitors at the Museum in March, you shared that during your art school years, it was all about abstract art. Representational art was frowned upon. Did you work with abstract art at that time or have you always held firm to representational art? How did you buck that trend, so to speak?

The work that was favored at that time was conceptual, so more installations and concept/process over making work that fit into outsider’s view of what is “good” and saleable and fits on your living room wall above the couch. Although that time was challenging for me, I did work in video and installation, and somewhat abstractly even though I always went back to representational work, kind of like it’s my language. Ultimately, that experience made me think bigger, and more universally, and when I began to work when I was out of school I think it helped me experiment and think about the bigger, wider possible impacts of my work on the world. But I always fall back to figurative work because I am enthralled with living things. That’s how I want to spend my time. That’s what I’m curious about.

Arctic Bumble Bee

You have a love and respect for pollinators, specifically the bumble bee. How has your reverence for the many species of bumble bees evolved?

Originally, it was my late partner, Andy, who shortly after we met, told me about honeybees dying and colony collapse disorder. That sparked a series of drawings of bees, and as I started to search for reference photos, I began to see how many different bee species there were. It blew me away. I began to see them more out in the yard and I’d try to wrap my brain around the job they do and how some bees have a buzz that is the specific frequency to release the pollen of a particular flower or it won’t release otherwise. I got to know which bumble bees were native to the Pacific Northwest and also back East where I grew up and which ones were red-listed and declining, which ones haven’t been seen in years. I connected with the people at Xerces Society (which happens to be in Portland), an international invertebrate conservation organization. Now I follow their work and donate a portion of my sales from bee drawings to them. I also upload photos of the bumble bees I see to Bumble Bee Watch and iNaturalist to help their research. Entomologist E.O.Wilson says we all need to become amateur naturalists to stop the rapid extinction of species that is happening now, and I feel this is true.

Have you ever found any subject too difficult or elusive to draw?

I was commissioned once to draw New Zealand’s extinct Huia birds. Even though I printed out a ton of references, I just couldn’t get a feel for them. The last confirmed sighting was in 1907, so there aren’t good photos of them alive. I also have this gut feeling that the life force of a creature is out there, and I can feel it, drum it up when I’m drawing. Sounds kind of silly maybe, but who knows, right?!

How do you know a drawing is finished?

Pretty much when I feel like I’m about to ruin it! I’ve definitely overdrawn some things! And sometimes a drawing just clicks at a certain point and you know.

Find April online at aprilcoppini.com.

Behind the Feather Duster

By Hand Through Memory

Sometimes, spring cleaning sneaks up on you, even when it’s snowing outside. This past weekend, the chore began as a quick vacuum to make the layer of cracker crumbs from the 4-year-old disappear. With the dark corners underneath furniture and behind curtains, however, my simple task became an all-day chore.

At the High Desert Museum, our collections volunteers do some spring cleaning of their own. Recently, both Spirit of the West and By Hand Through Memory, permanent exhibits, were briefly closed for an annual cleaning. Open since 1988, Spirit of the West offers a journey through the High Desert in the 19th century, including a Northern Paiute shelter and Hudson’s Bay Company fort. By Hand Through Memory, which opened in 1999, focuses on the Columbia Plateau Indian Nations. These two exhibits house hundreds of artifacts and objects, seen by thousands of visitors every year. To preserve the integrity of every single object, they must be cleaned, dusted and vacuumed.

Yet in exhibits with so many objects, where do you even begin cleaning? My house is one thing. An exhibition is quite another.

As I began quietly poking around the brightened exhibits, I was greeted by a small group of people doing their dizzying chore with immense pride. The spring cleaning is organized and guided by Museum curatorial staff. They are assisted by a group of dedicated, knowledgeable volunteers, many of whom have done this year after year. Darla, one of the collections volunteers, shared with me that the project is a huge part of their stewardship, the great care and ownership they take in the High Desert Museum.

The very first thing they do is remove all of the woolen and fur objects and props. They are packed neatly in labeled plastic bags and put in the freezer for forty-eight hours. Wait, a freezer? In order to destroy any moths that may be attempting to call it home, the object goes into an industrial-size freezer not meant to store employee lunches. Yes, even the taxidermy beaver makes the freezer his den for two days.

Once the woolens and furs and still-life critters are tucked away, the real cleaning begins, the kind of cleaning that happens with vacuums, brooms, feather dusters and soft rags. Just past Silver City in Spirit of the West is a cattle rancher’s settlement, with a wagon and cooking gear across the path from the bunkhouse filled with tack, every piece of equipment one might need to saddle and ride a horse. Each piece of riding headgear is gingerly removed from its hook and slowly cleaned with a soft cloth. The 100-year-old tack is returned to its place, creating the scene for visitors and making them feel like they’ve entered the bunkhouse of a real-life vaquero. No vaquero would let dust gather on his tack.

During my time chatting with the volunteers, I learned the difference between a prop and an object. A prop is something that a visitor might have physical access to, a wool blanket in Spirit of the West or pelt in By Hand Through Memory. Props are delicately stored in the freezer with the furs and woolens but do not require the same level of pristine handling as do the objects. Objects are protected behind glass or at a distance from the visitor and handled with the utmost care.

Once the cleaning of the scenes and objects is complete, the delicate focus returns to the woolens and furs. In Spirit of the West alone, there are seventy wool or fur objects. One might expect that every object is handled the same way, with cloth gloves as if in an episode of “Law & Order.” I learned from Darla that some gloves can pick up fibers from the furs. Thus, some objects require latex gloves and others require a clean hand. The small team working on the project knows without communicating which object requires which kind of glove. Clearly, this is a seasoned crew. One by one, the objects are laid out and cleaned with a low-powered vacuum. A small screen is placed in between the object and nozzle. The screen protects the object, keeping it from giving up too much fiber.

Closing off the popular permanent exhibits is done rarely. It’s done only for the most important of reasons, cleaning being one of them. The team works fast, with care and speed. Spirit of the West and By Hand Through Memory were each closed for five short winter days.

Both exhibits are back open to the public and looking as pristine as ever. Already, I can’t say the same for my carpet.

 

The Beauty of Wild Things: Charcoal Drawings by April Coppini
March 2 – June 23, 2019

April Coppini is a Portland-based artist whose enduring subject is wild animals. She is known for her large, gestural charcoal drawings of foxes, deer, jackrabbits, moths and bees. Coppini is renowned for being able to breathe life into her charcoal depictions of the wild inhabitants of the Pacific Northwest. Using only black charcoal and white paper, she makes images that are expressive, engaging and keenly observed in terms of their lifelike detail. She executes her drawings in a direct and physical way. Yet she never loses sight of the fragile beauty of the creatures she depicts. Coppini enables her viewers to experience the beauty of animals while at the same time asking them to be mindful of the need to protect the habitats that ensure their survival.

The Simpkins Conversation Continues

The exhibit Desert Mystic: The Paintings of John Simpkins opened at the High Desert Museum on October 27, 2018. The paintings reflect on the arid landscape and the wildlife surrounding his workspace in a schoolhouse in Andrews, Oregon. The exhibit opening was soon followed by a highly anticipated evening of conversation with Simpkins, filling the Museum’s Schnitzer Entrance Hall with more than 200 visitors eager to hear John discuss his artwork and life. The conversation continues here.

Painting in seclusion in the ghost town of Andrews, Oregon, how do you feel your artwork has evolved in the last seven years, being the town’s only human resident?

Painting is a life process. Living in the ghost town of Andrews, there are few distractions. I have learned to fully trust the intuitive guidance that leads me as I work, and I have released the constraints of time. Paintings evolve as days, weeks and months pass, eventually becoming something that is reflective of my observations, experiences and dreams. I have learned to trust what manifests as I paint. It evolves in each moment.

Some of your canvases are huge, larger than “Blood Moon” (9 feet x 10 feet) at the Museum. Do you find it takes more courage to approach a canvas the larger it is? Do you think it takes any courage to approach any canvas?

I have always been inspired by large canvases exhibited in museums and galleries. When I found myself here at this old one-room schoolhouse I felt it was time to explore this. What would it be like to paint on a canvas that was larger than me? Merriam-Webster defines courage as “mental or moral strength to venture, persevere, and withstand danger, fear, or difficulty.” Perhaps it takes a bit of courage, but mostly it is a marvelous challenge! It becomes much more physical, climbing up and down a ladder to reach the high places or being on my knees to work on the lower parts. It is an adventure! There is no fear, only joy and wonder!

Deer Edward

Are there any creatures you’ve had contact with at and around the schoolhouse that you have not been able to paint? If so, what makes that creature different from the mule deer, cougar or badger?

Recently I have observed a group of bluebirds. They seem to be living inside the attic space of the old schoolhouse! They go in and out via a large hole made by a woodpecker and it is winter! There is snow! Yet there are five beautiful bluebirds here! There are magpies, so graphic in their black and white plumage! I may create something to do with this, we shall see. All creatures are marvelous and special to me.

When you spoke to the audience at the High Desert Museum in early November, you mentioned your morning espresso numerous times. It’s clearly an important part of your daily ritual. What kind of espresso do you drink?

It has indeed become a ritual of sorts! I like to sip my espresso from a small bowl, cradling the warmth in my hands. It brings many comforts! I use Organic II Espresso beans from THE BEAN organic coffee company purchased online via Amazon in 5-pound bags and brewed using a small stainless stovetop espresso maker made by Bialetti.

Looking to Steens Mountain every morning and having a front row seat for global climate change as the snow comes later and disappears earlier from the mountain top, are environmental issues taking a more prominent role in your work?

Yes. I am very concerned for our planet and all the precious lifeforms that have evolved here. Living alone with my dog, Ella, each day’s weather becomes the background for my work; I observe the changes and I feel a responsibility to share this in my work.

You document Andrews and the surrounding landscape with some amazing photos shared on Facebook. Have any of the photos inspired paintings? Or do you see your photos and paintings as separate work?

I do think of my photos and my paintings as separate work. It is a delightful challenge to capture the many moods of light and shadow, the weather and seasons of this place with my camera. Most of my photos are taken within the 2-acre parcel of land on which the old Andrews Schoolhouse and Teacherage are situated. My paintings are influenced by what I see and experience here, but I rarely use my photos as the basis for a painting.

Blood Moon

How do you know when you’re finished with a painting?

The paintings let me know when they are finished. There is a clear sense that a painting has no further need for me! I may go out to the old schoolhouse ready to begin work, sit and look at the painting and realize that there nothing left to do. It is complete.

Do you see yourself leaving Andrews? After seven years of seclusion, where do you see yourself living and working after this?

I am open to new adventures, though there is no immediate need or desire in me to leave this magical old schoolhouse! I sense there are more stories to tell here. Yet, admittedly there is also a desire in my spirit to perhaps one day return to the southern part of France, to Arles, to find a place to paint and to work there for a month or two.

Find John online at johnsimpkins.com.

Animal Journeys: Navigating in Nature
September 8, 2018 – July 14, 2019

The navigational feats performed by wildlife—whether as part of their daily, local activities or long-distance migrations—are arguably some of the natural world’s most awe-inspiring phenomena. The tiny rufous hummingbird, for example, deftly finds its way from wintering grounds in Mexico and the southern United States to its breeding grounds in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.

This new, interactive exhibition explores how such remarkable journeys are possible. Unlike us, other animals don’t have the benefit of maps and compasses, or do they? While many mysteries remain, scientists are steadily uncovering the secrets of navigation. Their findings suggest that different species are equipped with internal compass senses, intricate mental maps and other adaptations that enable them to stay on track. These mechanisms tell birds, mammals, fish and insects where they are and in which direction they are heading, even as they navigate the most testing terrains or places they have never seen before.

Human actions create some further challenges for animal navigators. For example, lights can obscure the night sky and completely disorient birds and other species. Thankfully, as we learn more about how animals navigate and how we are impacting their behavior, we also become better equipped to take effective conservation actions. This knowledge helps us to understand our own species, too, and how we might navigate using nature’s clues. Come and find out how in “Animal Journeys: Navigating in Nature.”

By Donald M. Kerr Curator of Natural History Louise Shirley