SOUTH HILLS-RAISED, Mt. Lebanon High School-graduated Colette Copeland is an accomplished visual artist, innovative arts teacher and prolific arts writer.
She’s also notorious by nature — a direct descendant of 19th-century Wild West outlaw Jesse James, whose complex historical reality remains indelibly blurred in the American Pop Consciousness after more than 150 years of relentless mythmaking via films, songs, plays, dime novels, comic books and super-sensationalistic journalism.
Upon discovering her great-great-grandmother’s second husband was first cousin to Jesse James, Colette undertook a three-year “performative journey-quest” that eventually covered 9 states and 4,000 miles.
She traveled to sites where notable events had occurred in James’ life — bank and train robberies, hidden residences, real and counterfeit grave sites, themed motels and roadside museums — and documented them with a melange of media including photography, video, music, spoken word, painting, gold leaf, solar plate etching, gunpowder, locks of hair and blood.
(More on the blood, locks of hair, etc. further down.)
Which, she notes with relish, is an actual 19th-century Texas jail.
Colette’s formal studies comprise an MFA in Art Media Studies from Syracuse University, a Merchandising BFA with minor in Photography from Pratt Institute, graduate study in Photography at University of Miami, Florida. Over the past three decades, her work has been exhibited in 34 countries, 33 solo exhibitions and 148 group exhibitions/festivals including Three Rivers Arts Festival, Silver Eye Center for Photography, CMU Miller Gallery and Kingsley Center here in Pittsburgh.
She recently dropped into town for a visit and sat down to chat at Judy’s Java Joint in Bethel Park.
L.E. McCullough: When did you discover your Jesse James connection?
Colette Copeland: Even though I grew up in Pittsburgh, our family roots on both sides come from Texas. As a child, I was told we were related to Jesse James, but it wasn’t until I moved to Texas in 2011 that I began to think of how art might express the nuances and contradictions of family history. Particularly, this family history.
LEM: Despite the popular imagery, the historical Jesse James wasn’t known to be pleasant, casual company.
CC: He was a cold-blooded killer. Yet, he’s so often portrayed sympathetically. I had to explore that dichotomy in terms of ancestral legacy, gun violence, fake news and criminal celebrity stardom. All of which existed in his time and in ours.
LEM: How did you start?
CC: What gave me the methodology was a project I did in 2015, the Becoming Colette project. I was named after the French author Colette, and she was quite controversial and prolific in her writing. As a young woman, I’d read all her novels, so I put together what I called a performative journey, where I traveled all over France, traveled to places where Colette lived and wrote, and filmed at those locations. I found vintage hardback copies of her books, hollowed those out and set a small video monitor inside the book. They were video book sculptures of the places I filmed. And I had a composer create a sound montage of original music and actual recordings of Colette reading from her works. The end result was a multimedia piece that looked at literary history, gender and creativity.
LEM: That was the structure you’d later use with Jesse James?
CC: Exactly. I wanted to do something that blended personal and social history and also raised questions in people’s minds about how moral decisions are determined by more than personal choice. I had no idea he was so prolific of an outlaw. He committed robberies all over the country.
LEM: And those are just the ones we know about.
CC: Right. Of course, a lot of our family lore was not so available. People don’t like to air dirty laundry, anything that might affect the family reputation. But the myth was just the origin point for the artistic journey. How we mythologize criminals. One newspaper editor, a former Confederate officer named John Newman Edwards, was single-handedly responsible for building up the Robin Hood portrayal of the James Gang. The Associated Press would pick up Edwards’ articles and syndicate them around the country.
LEM: Like serial chapters from a new novel.
CC: Readers everywhere would be waiting for the next installment of the exciting and, of course, very slanted Jesse James story.
LEM: So, you arrive at a Jesse James site …
CC: I film and photograph. Basic impressions.
LEM: And leave a lock of your hair at each site.
CC: Leaving a lock of hair was a link of my DNA with this ancestor. And a peace offering to the site where violence occurred. A way of reconciling with the past. When you learn something terrible about your past, how do you go forward? How do you reconcile? I was also curious about who was going to find these locks of hair … will they think it’s really weird and be creeped out, or will they think it’s really cool?
LEM: What are some of the materials you ended up using in the final exhibit?
CC: There are 33 solar plate etchings on Arnheim paper and chine collé prints that combine gold leaf, gunpowder and blood. There is a 24-foot wall with a map of the United States showing 22 sites, and each site has a 5×7 inch video monitor. The visitor can go on the journey and see what I saw at each place.
LEM: And you have audio elements?
CC: Visitors may use their phones to scan a QR code that activates an original audio guide. An excellent Dallas actor named Ike Duncan narrates excerpts from historical newspaper accounts of the James Gang robberies. There’s a musical score made by composer Dallin B. Peacock, who I’d worked with on Becoming Colette, that evokes the Wild West of James’ time — horse hooves, train whistle, all to evoke that spirit as it’s mythologized.
LEM: How does Jesse James, as you researched him, relate to contemporary times?
CC: The T.J. Stiles biography, Jesse James: Last Rebel of the Civil War, is probably the best in talking about the real history of Jesse James and his environment, contextualizing what was going on in the American heartland of the 1860s and ’70s. I started thinking about various students I’ve had who are veterans and have shared with me their struggles of returning to civilian life. One was a sniper in the Marines. He says he was trained to do that one thing really well. But it doesn’t translate into civilian life.
LEM: There weren’t what we think of as veteran counseling programs after the Civil War.
CC: I’m not condoning James’ outlaw career at all. But he came out of the Civil War at age 17 knowing how to do two things really well — shoot and ride — but not much else.
LEM: You’ve taught for several years … Syracuse University, University of Pennsylvania, University of the Arts, Richland College and currently at —
CC: I teach at University of Texas-Dallas and at Collin College, 30 miles north of Dallas. Two different institutions with two very different student populations. So my goals for each are different. The UTD students are predominantly degree-seeking art students. I have the great fortune and blessing to have been able to create my own curriculum from scratch. I can teach classes I wish I’d had when I was in art school! In Contemporary Practices, we focus on generating creativity, and I give them tools to sustain their art practice when school is over.
LEM: A worthy goal.
CC: I tell them we’re going to play a lot. In the course of studying for a degree, they’ve forgotten how to play. They’ve already taken painting classes, drawing classes, sculpture classes. We’re doing none of that. We’re going to experiment, get out of our comfort zone. We explore Fluxus, the 1950s art movement that emphasized found events, sounds, materials and randomness. The class always ends with a performance art unit where they take their own life experiences and express them in their work in a way they haven’t been able to do before with art. I have them keep a journal … you’re going to come back to this someday, and your journal will be the seeds for a new project.
LEM: And Collin College?
CC: This is more of a community college with no art degree program. I teach Art Appreciation, now Foundations of Art. Students come in having not much interest in art, frankly. So to engage them, what is one art form people make every single day? They are the Digital Generation, and they make images on the phone every day that they distribute into the world.
LEM: Here’s your 15 minutes of fame, knock yourself out.
CC: We focus on contemporary photography as art, reading-writing-making. They do small-group discussions. They research a photographer, do a power point about it, then make their own work inspired by that photographer they’ve chosen. Across the board, the making projects are their favorite. Some really get the art bug.
LEM: You get people who think they don’t like art to make it themselves.
CC: Ultimately, it’s about communication, teamwork, social responsibility. My hope is they can use photography and the ideas we discuss to put their voice out in the world in a positive way that can impact and help others.
LEM: You also write about visual arts. Which not all that many visual artists do.
CC: I started writing about art in graduate school because I felt there were not enough actual artists writing about art. The two kinds of art writing I saw then were either too theoretical or dense and not accessible to the general public, or came from journalists not trained in any kind of art. It was a really big gap, and I started writing to fill that gap. I’ve written for a lot of publications, and I’ve really enjoyed writing for Glasstire since coming to Texas. It’s been one wild ride. I’ve been able to interview some of my all-time art stars, how cool is that?
LEM: Have you seen your artmaking evolve over the years?
CC: It’s become much more experimental, especially since I’ve been in Texas. Also riskier in that I’m interested in expanding beyond what art can be. By using performance, by embracing spectacle, embracing absurdity. I’m very influenced by the Dadaists. I employ much more humor now. The work is not so overtly political.
LEM: The playwright August Wilson once said, “All art is political in the sense that it serves someone’s politics.”
CC: But humor can be subversive. I always have the concept first. Then I figure out what form, what materials it takes to express that. I like to seduce my viewers with beauty, then bring up a dark edge.
LEM: What’s next for you? Any area you want to pursue that you haven’t?
CC: For the past few years I’ve worked with a wonderful filmmaker named Richard Bailey, and when I moved to Texas, I created an alter ago, The Victorian Woman, to engage with the masculine Texas culture. We made a few films that did well on the festival circuit. I’m starting a new multimedia piece in September. The premise is, an alien from outer space encounters a U.S. border guard. I’m designing a wearable sculpture dress made out of holographic spandex snakeskin. It came to me in a dream.
LEM: You may be inventing your own art form.
CC: If you can dream it, do it.
* FOR MORE INFORMATION on Colette Copeland and her art, www.colettecopeland.com