Gallery America


Episode 2: James Coplin

Edmond-based artist/teacher James Coplin has created all his life -- and then he became a bodybuilder champ. On Gallery America, James explains how he viewed bodybuilding as an art, how he transitioned into being a lifelong teacher at Edmond’s Santa Fe High School, and where he walks us through the process of painting Oklahoma’s Deep Fork River -- from tinted canvas to finished piece.

AIRED: September 02, 2021 | 0:27:45

"I'm gonna put a box. Ok now, this box, the corner of that

box, is right here."

Next on Gallery America

Meet an Edmond art teacher who has inspired students for nearly

30 years and created an impressive body of art along the


A lot of these kids have had female art teachers along the

way anyway. And so they're not really sure what to expect when

they see me

An Ohio graphic artist combines cartoon motifs...

"Cartoon characters, video game characters..."

and Chinese cultural references into whimsical public art.

“They're a great imagery that communicates wonder,

imagination, whimsy..."

A grafitti artist goes really big with his community-based

based murals in Miami, Florida.

“Big, large public murals - theres something very powerful

in that and because of that power theres also a

responsibility that comes with that. ”

Hello Oklahoma, Im Robert Reid and welcome to Gallery America,

the show that gets you behind the scenes of great artists of

Oklahoma and around the nation.

Today, were in a classroom because were going to meet a

teacher who has inspired thousands of students for nearly

three decades. Meet James Coplin.

First day of class, they come in. I've got paper on the table,

we're ready to rock and roll from the very first minute that

they come in and the bell rings and then we'll start drawing.

“Right in the middle of the page, that line, Im going to

put a box. OK. Now this box, that corner of that box, is

right here. ”

And then as we're drawing, I'll start telling them about the

class, try to answer some questions

“Im not going to grade you guys hard. This is an intro class. ”

This isn't going to be something to where you need to feel any

kind of anxiety about in my class. You know, if you turn in

all your work, you're going to be great. You're going to do


“Were going to learn some stuff, were going to have some

fun in here. Im going to go straight out, straight out

again... ”

If it's fun for me, it's probably going to be fun for

them too. So that's the main thing.

“Are they still saying that in grade school? I dont know

(laughs). ”

I'm James Coplin and I've been teaching here at Santa Fe High

School. I've been teaching art here for the past, uh, 28 years.

And I love this school. This is a great school. It's my home and

the people here, I'm very close to.

I'm a realist, uh, for sure. I can delve into doing more of an

impressionistic-type type piece here and there, but most of the

time it's just realism.

Every day during the summer: black shirt, blue jeans. I don't

want to have to think about what I'm gonna wear the next day or

that day. I just want to get up and do what I'm going to do


I always try to find the right shot. Looking off to the side. I

try to look back in the woods too sometimes. You might see

something and pull over. Something you didnt expect to

see. A lot of places everywhere

My process for finding a place that I want to paint is usually

fairly spontaneous. So as I'm out driving around anywhere, I'm

constantly looking over the bridge. Does that look like a

good spot?

So in the morning or the evening are the best times, all the

colors are a lot more vibrant.

I am seeing a painting happening in front of me. You got this

breakup of space here, where this river is going to go... And

you want that to leave a little bit of mystery around that bend.

I can add water, I can take it away put in an extra tree, take

it out

I love looking at rivers anyway, and I paint a lot of rivers or

pathways - paint a lot of pathways, a lot of rivers. They

lead you into the picture anyway. And then I'm always

looking at those things and going, I wonder where that leads

Yeah, I work up here a lot, uh, during the summer. This is sort

of the second home for me and it's, it's a nice setting to

where I don't have too many distractions at home.

I'm pretty methodical once I've decided what it is I'm going to

paint. I chose this particular scene here. I like the breakup

of space in it, the lighting was good, got a great reflection of

clouds above.

I work on a tinted canvas, um, and thats so that when you put

your paint down, it's a neutral color. And so if I put down a

light color on a tinted canvas, it looks light already.

So heres where I'm breaking up the space and that's going to go


So the process right now is I'm just getting this sketched out,

getting everything laid out where I want it, darkening up

some areas, breaking up this space more, and just getting a

more finished product before I start doing my underpainting.

Just to make sure I've got everything down exactly where I

want it before I jump in with any paint.

It goes all the way back to kindergarten. I was, um, there

and a kid came in for show-and-tell and-tell tell and

he had, uh, a painting that his grandmother had done. And he

said, “well, she did this painting. And she looked at this

photograph that she had, and then she painted it from that. ”

I thought for some reason that just clicked for me. And I said,

well, I think I can do that.

I did art on my own. I mean, I didn't have any art training at

all until, uh, I think my junior year they offered a course in

art. This is one of the pieces I did when I was 12. And you're

using your imagination as a kid and it, it, it's not from

anything except my imagination.

This is the underpainting. And it's just establishing my lights

and darks values more so that when I start in on my color,

there's less guesswork for me. Um, it just makes the whole

process a lot easier for me to do once I've got something down.

I was a commercial art major back then, they call it graphic

design now. And in college, uh, I would finish up early and if

somebody else needed help in class, I was always there to be

helpful or whatever. And, and I remember a college instructor of

mine, I remember he came over to me one day and he said,

”you're always helping somebody in here. Have you thought about

teaching? ” And I thought, no, I hadn't. But I changed my major

that day.

I just think I needed somebody to say it to me.

“I hardly ever make sense, but occasionally ”

I get called coach a lot. Um, kids just don't expect it.

I lift weights about three times a week right now. Uh, but

nothing too intense. Nothing like I did, just trying to stay

in shape, I'm not sure what they've got in their head.

When I first met him, I was not expecting him. I guess I was

expecting a woman and, you know, you know, just there's the

classic look of an artist that you would think of. And I think

his class kind of taught me that an artist can be anything,


It's a little photo album of me back in my bodybuilding days.

And, um, you keep these pictures because I wouldn't believe it if

I didn't see it.

I think I got into bodybuilding when I was a kid because I was

buying comic books. And, um, and then you see those

advertisements in the comic books back then, uh, about

bodybuilding. Oh, thats a good way to look like a comic-book

book character.

I competed from 1987 until 1991. The discipline in this is

similar to art, in that youre building, you know, its like

youre shaping with flesh instead of shaping with a


It was never an ego thing for me, it was always an art form.

The big, giant mural, uh, that I did for the school. I think it's

115 feet long by, I don't know what it is, 10 foot tall. And so

I had the idea of going down to what we call the Wolf Run here.

I went down through there that, that stream through there and

took pictures and took pictures of the Wolf Run, and then

incorporated that into the entire mural.

That's our mascot, were the Santa Fe Wolves. Once a Wolf,

always a Wolf! That's what they say. I believe it.

So art does not come naturally to me. And I went as far as to

petition the principal to let me get out of the state required

art, And they were like, “that's ridiculous. You have to take

art. ”

She got shoved in an art class. Didn't think it was going to be

her deal. And now she's a painter.

So I took just your basic painting class with Coplin. And

it was one of the biggest lasting impressions I've had as

a young adult. When we got to do oil painting, just something

about the way that the paint could be moved and manipulated

and squished. My fascination with detail started there. And

I've been painting ever since.

It is definitely a feather in my cap to see somebody go on and do

some fantastic work, you know?

“This area here create a little emphasis. ”

The underpainting can really add to the flavor of your color too,

because this is sort of a reddish brown. And so it'll add

a warmth to anything that I put on top of it. And it'll show

through a little bit, and then sometimes I'll let it show

through. I won't completely cover all of the underpainting.

So I've got little flecks of this reddish brown throughout

the painting, which adds a harmony and a continuity to the

entire painting, kind of ties it all together.

People always ask me “whats your favorite painting? ” My

favorite painting is always, always the painting that I'm

working on. You gotta be in love with that one while you're doing

it. And so it's the process that I enjoy, whether the painting

works out or not. It's the process that I love so much.

It's addictive. You can't stop doing it.

See more of James paintings by visiting his Instagram account

And as a bonus, hear James talk about his days as a bouncer for

Van Halen by going to our Instagram @oetagallery.

Most of the time I'm doing this

cause I'm watching Eddie Van Halen play Eruption

Next, we meet a graphic artist who creates public artworks that

combines his passion for clouds, cartoons and a Chinese cultural

heroes. Have a look.

So the 10,000 000 things is a Taoist phrase that refers to you

know, the universe, the world pretty much all that's in

existence. And it kind of relates also to the imagery of

things that are flowing, ebbing and flowing and just always

shifting. I love the concept of energy. I love the concept of,

you know, visuals of movement which I think have strong

connections to life, to narratives, to human beings and

growing. A lot of the choices that I

make connect to that.

(bell ring) My grandfather, he would take like computer paper

and like, you know, cut it up into like smaller squares and

just have like a big stack of it in the kitchen for me to draw

on, I could spend hours drawing, you know - [Interviewer] What

were you drawing? - Oh! Cartoon characters, comic book

characters, you know video game characters, things, you know

things that I was watching on TV like Sonic the Hedgehog, Dragon

Ball Z, all those things.

(bell ring) This is Sun Wukong. And he is one of the main

characters in Journey to the West which is a classic Chinese

novel written long time ago. And there's a lot of, you know,

adaptations of this character. And I grew up watching the

Journey to the West TV show that was made back in the 80s. So my

grandmother would record this show and have it on VHS tapes

for me to watch. And the stories just fantastical and really

appeals to your imagination.

(bell ring) Someone asked me recently, like, you know, what

is the use of rings and halos? And I think they're a great

motif to kind of connect to this idea of the divine or other

worldly, you know something that is beyond this physical realm,

you know to have this, this like halo or ring kind of like float

around around you like 24/7, 7, it's just like this really cool

imaginative, you know scene.

(bell ring) I like using clouds because I feel like they are

great imagery that communicates wonder, imagination, whimsy, and

you can use them in all sorts of different ways. You know,

whether they're like kind of really fluffy and playful. And

now that I'm thinking about Chinese and Asian artwork the

clouds are really used, especially in images of heaven

and then things that are divine, beyond the realm of what we


(bell ring) Yeah, hiding little versions of myself is kind of

been like a new thing just because the works I've been

doing recently are just so detailed and there's so much

going on that it's like, oh yeah, why not get away with

hiding of this like small version of myself. And it's kind

of become a way to quote unquote, sign my my works.

(bell ring) A lot of the work that I'm doing now. And also in

the past, the common thread is this idea of like perseverance,

encouragement, growth. Now I'm exploring like again in relation

to like those Taoist ideas, the ebbs and flow of life being a

little softer when things are tense and hard and yeah, just

kind of finding a balance and maybe bliss in this crazy life

that we live. Which, you know, I think applies to not just the

times that we live now, but in the past and times that we're

going to live. So it's weird how it's like all connected and just

always in flux.

To see more of Jordons artwork, follow him on Instagram at


Lastly were sticking with murals. This next graffiti

artist scales buildings to create monumental murals that

tribute locals in a Miami neighborhood. Meet El Mac.

With this piece, as with most of my pieces, my focus is on

creating something that has some sense of timelessness. My name

is Miles MacGregor, also known as El Mac. I'm an artist and

muralist. It's something that I take very seriously as a public

artist. You know, painting these big, large public murals. You

know, there's something very powerful in that, and because of

that power, you know, there's, there's also kind of a

responsibility that comes with that and hopefully something

that the community can connect with, you know, something that's

relevant to the history and the culture of wherever the mural


These figures are monumental. Normally when we look at

monuments, they're famous figures. I don't know if it's

like groundbreaking conceptually or anything, but I think it's

important work to make these kinds of monuments to normal


The figures are based on reference photos that I shot of

some local young people. The young woman, her name is

Mondolina, and she helps manage a nearby community garden. The

figure next to her, his name is Jemai and he's a ballet dancer.

The third figure, he's Seminole and he's the youngest figure

that I'm painting.

I work all night. And then in the morning. The technique is

very difficult. It's ridiculously time-consuming.

consuming. And the way that I paint, you know, it's all lines

and circles, lines and circles and patterns and the hope is

that that kind of consistency is, it does something for the

viewer or can the same way when we hear some music that we like,

you know, there's something about the pattern. It's

appealing to the brain from a distance. These images hopefully

look representational and, and realistic and accurate.

And at the same time I hope that when people actually are in

front of them in person and can see the details, that that can

work on another level. And it's almost abstract. When I paint,

I'm putting my paint in ice, you know, to cool the cans and lower

the pressure. I'm using certain kinds of caps, you know, and if

it's hot out, you know, it'll change the pressure of the can

and so there's a lot going on there. But at the same time, I'm

also kind of using the paint in a way that comes out of what you

would call a traditional graffiti aesthetic.

You know, like I'm using these caps that are known as New York

fat caps and they were kind of like iconic paint valves in

graffiti. You know, historically, you know, and the

way that they make the paint spray out in this kind of hollow

circle or ring of paint. But I'm kind of stretching it to its

limit. This technique has been kind of evolving over time. You

could look at the one surviving piece that I painted here in

Wynwood from 2009 and you know, just over the years. I think, I

keep trying to find ways to make it more difficult and time

consuming for myself. No, but I have been actually, um, cause I

keep trying to push it and stretch it as far as I can. And

I think the challenge of, of painting these pieces, you know,

and, and constantly trying to figure out new ways to make them

more beautiful is this kind of never ending.

It's also, you know, this is an important project for me because

I haven't painted in Miami in over a decade. You know the

first time that I've painted out here was in 2007 was already

graffiti art in this area. No question. But I think as far as

I know 2007 was maybe the first year that there was really a

kind of a larger scale organized mural project. You always hear

about street art and I think Wynwood is kind of world famous

now is kind of the epicenter of street art. And you know, I

always point out that the first time I actually heard the term

street art here in Miami in 2008 and we were all just like what?

What is that? Cause we were all coming out of a background in

graffiti and and you know, fine art, but you know, we were, we

called it

graffiti, you know?

And I think from my own experience that was a turning

point in this whole movement. I never really liked the term

street art. I never really embraced it. But you know, it is

what it is. So much goes into it. You know? I really see it as

I'm putting love into the art, which sounds very fuzzy and

cliche, but it's really sincere. It's, it's almost spiritual.

It's almost religious. You know? It's, it's, it's my life's


You can see more of El Macs artwork by following him on

Instagram at @elmac _arte

Now for some homework. You can revisit past episodes of Gallery

America by going to our website

tv/galleryamerica. galleryamerica.

And for bonus features of Oklahoma artists and exhibits,

follow us on Instagram at @oetagallery.

Thank you so much for joining us Oklahoma. Well see you next

time, right here on Gallery America.


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