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.
"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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 oeta.tv/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.