"Untitled: Three Women" (above) and "Peace with Birds" (center), paintings by Westy Caswell Copeland
"Untitled: Three Women" (above) and "Peace with Birds" (center), paintings by Westy Caswell Copeland
Westy Caswell Copeland's version of a midlife crisis hit at age 39½, that feeling of if not now, when? Her paintings and prints had been selling nicely through the frame shop where she worked and through exhibits at coffee shops and art fairs, "but the age of 40 was all of sudden knocking on my doorstep," Copeland said. "I looked back at the last 10 years and it had gone by 'pfftt' like that. And I thought, holy-moly, another 10 years is going to go by and I'm going be 50 and if I haven't really tried to follow my dreams I think I'm going to regret it."

Open minds open paths
Her dream has always been to "make it as an artist." After starting on a more scientific track at Middlebury College in Vermont, she recalled an emotional phone call with her geologist father, when she realized she wasn't cut out to be a geologist. That she wanted to be an artist was not a big surprise to her parents. "Go for it" was her father's response. "My parents have never once said 'what are you going to do with this?' They just always had faith and I've always had faith," Copeland said. "I think when your mind is open, paths open for you."

Paths did open for her. After receiving her BA/Studio major at Middlebury College and starting to sell her artwork, she decided to go to graduate school in printmaking at the Rochester (N.Y.) Institute of Technology. "I was lucky enough that I won scholarships, so I could go and do art full time for two full years. I was the queen of the printmaking lab," Copeland said. She recalled it as a glorious time, finding out what makes herself tick as an artist.

"A lot of the images that I still use now are things that I invented back then. I remember classmates teasing me: 'What is with all of these women and cats?' I learned to defend myself," she said.

Women and animals-cats, dogs, birds, fish-are recurring images in her paintings and prints. A woodcut that she did while an undergraduate was titled "What if we were all beneath the sea?" It was a response to her question: What if things were flipped? What if people lived below the water and everything else was above us? "That was always in the back of my mind, the hierarchy of animals and people," Copeland said. "Why do we think we're so great and fish ought to be beneath us? So, that's why I draw people with fish on their heads and cats on their heads."

Accumulative art
When taking the leap several years ago, leaving her work at the frame shop to become a full-time artist, Copeland found that she had accumulated artwork for 25 years and she started cutting up her paintings and prints.

"I finally got to a point where it was OK to do that, you kind of get over yourself. So I started cutting up my work and doing collages," she said. That's how her painting/collage of the three women on this month's cover was created. They are from three separate paintings.

"I love painting faces. I love the idea of people's identities and masks and what we present to the public vs. what we really are," Copeland said. "It's that whole identity thing, the façade that we have. The three women in the painting represent three different faces of maybe the same person, or they could be three sisters, which is kind of the same thing."

Copeland calls her art "happy art." "My women are generally not frowning or crying or angry," but rather peaceful, content, introspective. "Over the last couple of years," Copeland said, "I've gotten better at putting an emotion in a face that I want to be there vs. having it happen by accident."

Now as a full-time artist-plus mother to a 4-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son, a wife and occasionally an art teacher-Copeland said when other parents ask for advice about their budding artist kids she replies: Let them follow their bliss. "If you are doing what you want to do, doors will open. If you keep an open mind, keep your eyes open, things will happen for you."

FFI: www.mnartists.org