David Copson, artist, painter, printmaker

I come from a family of scientists. Most notably, my grandfather worked with Madam Currie and my father was a metallurgist who wrote the book on corrosion. I was well on my way to a career in Math or Physics as a High School Senior when I took an elective course in art. Changed everything.

I recall making the fateful decision to pursue art as I filled out my college applications. I felt a strong urge to indicate my probable major as Fine Art, but felt the weight of expectations to stick to the predetermined path of Math. Making a change like that made no practical sense because I had taken all the math courses offered in my high school and had the highest recommendation from my math teacher.

My girlfriend encouraged me to follow my heart, so I did – and later also married her.

Soon I was getting all A’s in the art classes at Bucknell University and failing Calculus. Now my math teacher didn’t like me quite so much and my father wanted to know how I planed to make a living.

Primarily a painter, I became intrigued by printmaking, particularly lithography. I felt that there was not much more to learn technically about how to paint but plenty for me to learn about the techniques of lithography. In retrospect, I may have been better served if I’d simply gone to New York City and gotten involved in the art scene, but I had been well conditioned to the importance of academia, so I kept going and got my MFA from the University of Minnesota in Studio Art with concentration in printmaking.

That turned out well enough.

My adviser and mentor had many professional connections and when one of those needed a good printer in a hurry, I was the man for the job. I finished up my degree work later while working at several fine art lithography workshops in New York City. At first, I was just a “roller pusher” – pulling traditional stone drawn editions on hand printing presses, but soon I started working directly with artists as a proofer at the highly regarded Atelier Ettinger, shortly after they opened. I moved up through the ranks to Master Printer and served as Technical Director from 1984 to 1994, when I decided I’d had enough of the big city. A few years later they closed up shop.

As a sideline that grew into my main business, I established my own studio in 1978 to provide specialized services to printmaking artists and lithographic workshops. I was fortunate to find a niche working in the printmaking community and I became much in demand as a free-lance chromist. A chromist is a specialist at creating the hand drawn color separations which, when printed one at a time in a specifically matched color, create the print image. A chromist is akin to a ghostwriter. I was a technical expert and secret weapon artists could rely upon to help translate their work into original print media. I had a rare and amazing talent to capture the style of just about any artist. I have no supporting evidence, but think it is quite possible that I have drawn more lithographs by hand than anyone else in America.

Over a 35 year career in lithography, I collaborated with over 100 diverse artists including: Alex Katz, Marisol Escobar, Larry Rivers, James Rosenquist, Norman Rockwell, Nancy Grossman, Andy Warhol, Alice Neel, Romare Bearden, Peter Max, Roy Lichtenstein, Malcolm Liepke, Ernst Neizvestny, Mikhail Chemiakin, Hughie Lee Smith, Al Hirschfeld and celebrity artists such as Anthony Quinn, Tony Bennett and Elke Sommer. Organizations for which I provided services include the Russian State Museum, the Smithsonian Institute, the World Federation of United Nations Associations, Warner Brothers Studios, the Special Olympics Committee, the Kandinsky Society, the Mucha Foundation, the World Series of Poker, and the American Film Institute. I worked out of major lithography studios such as Atelier Ettinger, JK Fine Art Editions, George C. Miller and Sons, and S2 Atelier.

I had a long and busy and fruitful career in art. Helpful in providing for my family. Not so helpful in following my own artistic vision. I was drawing all the time – nearly everyday and often far into the night. I never had to think about what to draw – and what I thought about the artistic merits of the art I was working on had nothing to do with it. I excelled at putting together the job and delivering on time. But it was all other artist’s work. They signed it and got all the credit.

I had a good run. I had to stop for health reasons.

I’ve always felt that I had a way of seeing that seemed at odds with the normal world. That didn’t stop me from fitting in, doing well in school, getting along with others, being a good manager, or from not having any of the aberrant social behaviors associated with stories of people similarly afflicted however. If I didn’t tell you about it, you’d never know.

David Copson on a Vision Quest in the Inyo Mountains, circa 1988.

That’s me in the Inyo Mountains, circa 1988.

Making sense of what I instinctively and innocently was experiencing lead to a 10 year training with a Cherokee Mystic. After that, I felt some confidence that my mystical experiences could be interpreted, understood, incorporated, and expanded.

The main creative impetus for my own body of work began over 25 years ago on a three-day fasting Vision Quest in the Inyo Mountains of the California high desert. That was a highly structured journey that just about forces self discovery. For me, it profoundly clarified my artistic vision. I was struck by both the majesty of the clear star-studded night sky and by the sublime inner source of my own being and felt a strong bonding of the two. In a flash of awareness, I was given the medicine name of Light into Being – a name that both exemplifies my art and provides context to my life.

But the thing about a Vision Quest is that one would come back and live out that vision for the benefit of the people. I however, was still very much caught up in my lithography career, making a living, and all that. I painted, sure – but I never gave myself over to the painting.

“A man who has a vision is not able to use the power of it until after he has performed the vision on earth for the people to see.” –Black Elk

A near death experience changed that and clarified the etic nature of my visions.

I was born with a genetic heart condition that got me out of the draft but was not much of a physical deterrent until I was in my 50s. I have two abnormal heart valves. I have had two major reconstructive heart surgeries and my right lung collapsed twice. I had become morbidly obese. I developed a huge aneurysm right next to my heart. My heart actually stopped five times. (I was resuscitated 5 times.)

I am much better now, thank you. I have amazed my doctors by no longer needing oxygen therapy, overcoming my cardiac myopathy and losing a lot of weight. There remains massive scar tissue on my heart and I continue to have an abnormal heartbeat which makes exercise difficult and a regular work schedule impossible. So what else to do but give myself to the painting, at last.

I have a note scrawled in my handwriting on the wall of my studio. I don’t recall putting it there or remember where I heard it. It says:

“If you bring forth what is within you, it will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, it will destroy you.”–Jesus

DC in studio 2015 -2

In the studio with Origin of Form, 2015

That note was the first thing I noticed when I first entered my studio during my long recovery from my last surgery. And that is what happened to me. I truly think that I almost died from failing to bring forth that which is within me. My broken heart had to be reconstructed. Physically and also metaphorically.

In traditional cultures, the ones that crossed the threshold and then returned to their tribe to become healers and visionaries by sharing what they had seen and learned in the spirit world were the shamans and artists of the tribe and were honored and supported by their society. Guess I’m still waiting for that to happen as I work to make art that is a visual representation of my inner multidimensional and trans-sensory experience – from my near death experience and in dreams, meditations and the trance like state I go into while painting. These are my visions for my people.

Many have visions – few make them real.

Today I live in rural central Virginia with my mystical wife of 47 years. My five children and 12 grandchildren all live nearby. I’m lucky enough to have a been able to build a large studio at the edge of the woods. Life’s great.