Skyscapes and Prairie Plants
Artist teaches, paints, savors Southwest
by Rachel Coleman
Young voices bright with excitement overlap in the high-ceilinged studio as elementary-school artists complete their projects and unpack their sack lunches. Members of Kylix, the student art club at Seward County Community College/Area Technical School, squirt dollops of paint, distribute scraps of fabric and wipe up spills left behind by their young wards. Presiding over it all is Susan Copas, one of the college’s two art instructors and recipient of the Kansas Art Education Association’s “Art Educator of the Year” award for 2010-11.
Though she’s an accomplished painter in her own right — and instructor of students nearly a decade older than the budding artists in the studio today — Copas seems right at home amid the cheerful chaos. This, after all, is pretty close to where she started her career as an educator: with children in Southwest Kansas.
“I originally came to this area as an artist-in-residence for the Garden City public schools,” Copas said. “It was a program jointly funded by the Kansas Arts Commission, and I traveled to all the elementary schools in that district, working with children and teachers.” At the end of Copas’ three-year stint in the position, the district opted to incorporate art instruction into its basic educational plan. Copas moved south to Liberal and a job at SCCC, satisfied that her work had yielded lasting results.
That desire to increase community involvement in the arts has intensified through the years. In Liberal, Copas established a student art club on campus, then helped the students raise art awareness with events like Kids Art Day, an annual auction of student-created work, and collaboration with the English department in its award-winning literary magazine “Telolith.” She’s particularly fond of the multilayered aspects of Kids’ Art Day.
“In a lot of cases, the students I teach here are looking at careers in education, so [the Kylix art day] is teaching them to be teachers,” Copas said. Additionally, “The children who participate gain art-making skills, which is really important.” Because the Liberal school district does not employ art instructors at the lower-grade level, Copas feels the twice-yearly workshops fill a gap.
“Until they get to high school, art instruction is kind of hit-and-miss,” she said, “and there’s a time window with that. If children don’t learn basic skills by fifth grade, they become self-critical and won’t pursue art.”
In the studio classes she teaches at the college, though, Copas coaches many aspiring artists as they overcome that mindset.
“I have a lot of students who come in and say, ‘I haven’t done anything to learn art, but I’ve always wanted to, so I’m going to give it a try.’” Those students hear reassurance from the instructor who came to the studio at age 30: “Anyone can develop basic art skills,” Copas maintains.
For Copas, a master’s degree in painting and her resulting career as painter and instructor was the culmination of a dream deferred.
“I always liked drawing,” she said. Although her parents were supportive, providing art supplies to augment the instruction Copas received in elementary school, she never considered college or art school.
“I had no role model of women having careers or of doing anything other than getting married and having kids, and my parents didn’t think college was particularly necessary for women,” Copas said. “For some reason, I thought my ultimate goal would be to be a secretary.” Accordingly, she bypassed high school art classes in favor of typing.
At 30, everything changed. Copas enrolled at the University of Kansas, and like many of her students at SCCC, she signed up for an art class thinking, “I’ll try that.”
“Even at that point,” she recalls, “I was interested in the idea of learning but I wasn’t thinking of an art career. I was really just so thrilled to find that in the art department, there were lots of other people who were weird — or not weird after all — like I was, and that was so satisfying.”
As Copas progressed toward her graduate degree, she found painting was her preferred medium, despite popular trends toward avant-garde artforms like installation and performance art. Furthermore, she learned to listen to her own voice — the small, internal one that quietly insists, “This is how I want things to look.”
“By the time I graduated, I had kind of gotten to the place where I could say I didn’t care what my professors said about my work, that there wasn’t some ‘right’ way to make art,” she said, “and I think that’s kind of what they were waiting for. That’s how you know you’re ready to go out on your own.”
Copas’ paintings tend to convey a sort of magical realism, rooted in the natural world but also evocative of story, archaeology, life sciences, and “little things that capture my interest. Right now, I find myself painting things that are growing right outside my back door,” she said. Her view encompasses the landscape of Southwest Kansas as well.
“What I paint is really closely connected to where I live,” she said. “I grew up in the Kansas City suburbs, but I always knew I wanted to be near nature. I think I could probably happily work anywhere, but I prefer the openness of the sky here and the plains.”
Copas typically shows her work in area galleries and invitational shows, including one in Garden City that opened in late November. She’s exhibited at CityArt in Wichita and participates in juried art shows around the country every year, garnering awards and selling paintings. However, she also finds great satisfaction in her work as an educator.
“I really like my job, with the freedom and the support it offers, and the chance to mentor students,” she said. “In the larger perspective, I try to be a role model — someone who has goals, works to achieve them, and doesn’t let fear keep you from doing what you want to do.”