At home with Kiwi artist Deidre Copeland

Central Otago artist Deidre Copeland’s paintings are immediately recognisable . Big canvases. Hyperrealism. She talks to Nathalie Brown about her career and crazy lifestyle.

WORDS: NATHALIE BROWN 

IMAGES: RACHEL HALE MCKENNA

Artist Deidre Copeland’s subjects are like actors on a stage. “A clear image or concept forms in my head. Then I find someone to play it out.” She creates five-times life-size faces where wrinkles, pouches, pores and rogue hairs are exposed to view. Most of these portraits feature the model’s hand or hands while a prop of some sort anchors the piece. And most of her models are men.

“I love men’s faces and the way they reflect the environment; they are like an intricate puzzle to me,” she says. “I love the detail and variation of texture and the stories woven into every wrinkle. My female portraits are quite different. Most ladies like to be seen in their best light.”

While fellow Central Otago artist Grahame Sydney has been a big influence in her working life, she had already developed her hyperrealist style before he became her mentor. After seeing her first exhibition he made contact and told her she was on the right track, that she should stay strong and not give up despite the difficulties of working as an artist.

“That was really encouraging and then we struck up a friendship where for years I modeled for him and he taught me more than I ever learned at art school. We used to paint side-by-side in his studio for a while and he honed my technique.”

“You don’t really learn that at art school, where it’s all about concept and self-expression. So he taught me things like how to mix your medium and layer the paint up and how to varnish it, and also the finer details of composition and how things should work spatially.”

When Deidre and her partner, builder Jason Williams, designed their house in a new Cromwell sub-division she provided their draftsman with a floor plan and a three-dimensional sketch. Naturally her artistic skills informed the proportions, light sources, curves and angles as well as the colours and textures throughout.

“I feel I can unleash in my own house so that I don’t have to pull back in any way. Initially I painted the whole house white. Then as more money became available I added splashes of colour. Normally what I do is wait until Jase is away from home for the weekend and when he comes back the wall is black or another wall is bright blue or the frame around the television is painted to blend with the surroundings. Or I’ve taken to the sofas with lime green house paint. It’s great because one of the sofas is outside and the exterior house paint makes it waterproof so the rain just slides off it. It’s no big deal. The couch cost me 10 bucks.

“Sometimes I will paint a wall to suit a particular painting. Most people would do it the other way around – choose a painting that complements their décor. I went through a stage of having a really lovely soft blue in my paintings and that is now reflected in some of the walls.”

Being the mother of two primary schoolchildren, Willie and Charli, working in a new residential-property business in partnership with Jason, keeping her home just so and producing a new artwork most months begs the question: how does she do it all?

Deidre Copeland knows about hard work and self-discipline having grown up on a sheep farm at Dipton, Southland, with three sisters, all of whom were expected to learn the basics of farming. Her least favourite job was plucking wool off dead sheep carcasses. She completed three years at the Otago School of Art and another year at teachers’ college and then taught high school art in New Zealand and overseas for seven years before returning in 2003 determined to make her living as an artist.

“I don’t sleep much,” she says. “I find inspiration comes to me at nighttime when there are no distractions. I often work from 8pm until two o’clock in the morning. Then I need to be up to get the children ready for school. I also coach a netball team, play various sports and enjoy chasing my kids around the rugby field and netball court.”

Like most artists, Deidre’s income stream is either in flood, or a trickle that needs to be dammed and conserved. Having finished a piece of work, unless it is a commission, Deidre places it in one of several galleries throughout New Zealand that represent her. In addition, she usually mounts one exhibition a year around a specific theme.

“It takes a whole year to put together an exhibition and while I’m working on the paintings I’m not being paid. You have to save the money from the previous exhibition to live on for a year before the next exhibition, and then hope you’ll make money on that.”

In one exhibition she painted characters such as Sir Richard Hadley, Tim Shadbolt, AJ Hackett, Sir Michael Hill and Owen Marshall among others. Commissions make up about half her income and a lot of her work goes overseas these days. “Thankfully I have great support for my art and I am busier than ever,” she says.

Art house

It’s not often that new homebuyers have the opportunity to have a nationally significant artist help them put together their interior and exterior décor. Deidre and her partner Jason Williams have set up in business with two others to form Barratt Homes Central Otago.

The company is a newcomer in Central so Deidre and Jason are making their mark by offering a number of land and house packages at affordable prices, compared with what is generally available in the region. And Deidrebrings her talents as an exponent of the fine arts to the commercial world by helping clients choose their finishings: carpets, tiles, fittings, paint palette.

Having dressed the company’s Cromwell show home and embellished it with her original artworks, Deidre can be found there most days. “While we have a standard range of finishings, I can help clients choose what works best for them within that range. I love doing it. It’s fun and it’s right up my alley because I love playing house and talking to people. It’s also kind of cool because I’ve been a self-employed solo artist for 15 years and now I am on staff. So I get to go to the staff party.”

Party girl

Slathered in pink rouge and lipstick, with gormless cat’s eye spectacles, a flowery turban and an op-shop print frock, Deidre Copeland makes a really scary “Bingo Nana”. And she has the photos to prove it. Deidre likes to party, and given the number of charity auctions and fundraisers she attends throughout Central in any given year she has plenty of opportunity to either glam it up or dowdy it down as the occasion requires. Enter the Bingo Nana and her ilk. “I’m asked to be the guest speaker at clubs and groups and to donate art to charity auctions as often as once a month but I have to limit the donations of artworks works because I need to sell them to put food on our table.” deidrecopeland.com

* This article first appeared in NZ Life & Leisure magazine. For more stories like this, visit thisnzlife.co.nz.

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