J. Frank Copeland
Up to the time he was eleven years old, Frank Copeland, just an average boy in a small mid-western town, had taken no interest in the drawing lessons as then given in the public schools which he attended. They consisted in copying stiff, conventional leaf forms etc. from one side of a so called drawing-book to the blank page opposite, with an occasional exercise in “original design”.
Frank now acknowledges that the only “original design” that he could conjure up was one of forms that looked like links of sausage neatly arranged on the diameters and diagonals of a square, with a few variations on the original skeleton lines by way of variety.
His mother had a set of real oil paints, with brushes and everything, that Uncle Jim had bought for her with his first soldier’s pay. Uncle Jim was killed at Shilo and that set of oils was a treasured possession.
Frank had watched his mother paint real genuine oil paintings with these sacred paints, and because of his watchful interest and his deep admiration for the efforts produced, was allowed to call the “pictures” his very own and not only the paintings, but every bit of “fancy work” his mother produced, from the putty jug on the whatnot with its fascinating collection of this and that to the cross-stitched embroidered slipper holders and the wall mottoes, and even the much feared grinning satyr head that was kept on the top of the china closet.
This art collection was augmented from time to time by the purchase of such works of art as his meagre funds would warrant. A talented school-mate produced “wonders in oil” on thin wooden plates and the elongated, bowl-like, wooden butter containers that came from the grocery store. These were mainly Swiss snow-scenes with wonderful mountains, snow covered trees and cottages, sparkling with “diamond dust” which was cleverly sprinkled over the wet paint so that it would stick.
These works were offered from time to time at the rather stiff price of ten cents but were eagerly snapped up by the young collector whenever by any means such a considerable sum could be raised.
We shall now see how a keen appreciation of works of art by others and a desire for acquisition of the same led to the development of latent talent.
At the age of eleven, Frank was one day called up to the teacher's desk and shown a small wood-cut of a fountain with water spouting from the top and dripping from its two smaller basins into a larger one at the bottom. The teacher said: Frank, do you think you can draw that on the blackboard?
A panic of emotion, mainly fear, was the first reaction, quickly followed by a surge of ambition and pride at being asked. Yes, Ma'am was the resolute answer. He didn't know just how he was going to get away with it, but he wanted to do it mightily.
Frank says that this was the most thrilling commission that he ever received and he bases upon it much of his philosophy of life: "We grow, he says, by aspiring with all our soul after something that is just a little beyond our reach."
By dint of much grueling labor after school hours, the feat was creditably accomplished and later shown with pride on the occasion which prompted the effort, "Parents Visiting Day".
From that day the boy's reputation was established in his school as one who could draw things on the blackboard, and what a thrill this distinction afforded.
Two years later, to his utter astonishment, he was awarded the blue ribbon and a money prize for his school drawing at the County Fair. This was Fame.
The last blackboard drawing on the wall of the top room of that Grade School was a picture of Washington's house at Mt. Vernon. Years later, when on a visit to the old home town, Frank was deeply touched to find the drawing still there, carefully guarded from desecrating hands.
High School offered little in those days in the way of drawing instruction, but botany note books and Herbarium provided fascination outlets to talent and they were handled with loving care.
What a precious and important thing is recognition of a sprouting talent in a child who may be utterly unconscious of its possession: this coupled with gentle encouragement, is often the most telling factor in a successful career..
One day during summer vacation, the family were gathered around the dinner table and the following conversation took place, an elder brother speaking :"Frank, did you ever hear of a little instrument called the Air Brush?" "No, what about it?" "Well, it was invented by a man here in town who was in the same regiment as our Uncle Bill. It's a little atomizer run by compressed air, in which you can put and spray it on paper for drawing and shading pictures. You can make portraits, designs, and all sorts of interesting things with it. Some of the boys up at the shop have been going over to a little class and learning to use it and they tell me it's a wonderful little art tool. I believe you could soon learn to use it and possibly earn something by your work."
This was something to arouse the interest of any boy fond of drawing. So the very next day, accompanied by Uncle Bill, Frank visited the Air Brush School, met the inventor, saw the demonstration, and eagerly entered a summer class to learn the use of the instrument. He was then sixteen years old. Within three months he had mastered the use of the Air Brush and was able to make a living by the work he could produce.
Within six months a position was offered and accepted in the city of Buffalo, NY. Home ties were broken and the boy was started on a new life.
Cast drawing in the evening school of the Buffalo Art Academy was his first serious contact with art study. This was followed later by association with a landscape painter in oil and water color. Many sketching trips with the fascination study of color and landscape under the guidance of a veteran were the result of this contact.
A visit to the World's Columbian Exposition at Chicago, with its great art exhibition and its impressive architectural setting , so fired the ambition of the boy that he determined to enter an art school at the first opportunity.
This came a few years later when he obtained a scholarship at the Pennsylvania Museum School of Industrial Art in Philadelphia, supporting himself by work with the Air Brush in spare time, consisting mainly of the drawing of figure cartoons for stained glass.
Here he found the training in fundamentals for which he was longing -- drawing, design, color, modeling, decoration, the history of art, ornament, and of architecture. He drank in these things like a thirsty sponge under the guidance of H.F. Stratton, the director of the school and Leslie W. Miller its principal.
On the invitation of the instructor of antique and life drawing, Frank demonstrated the use of the Air Brush in drawing from the cast, producing. to their astonishment a highly finished drawing in three hours. This probably constitutes the first invasion of an art school by modern machine methods on record. The subject was an antique torso, full size, and the drawing hung for years in the school's permanent exhibit at the Pennsylvania Museum.
At the end of his first year's work, having won the highest honor, the President's Prize, he was given a part time teaching position and continued his studies until he had received all the credits which the school had to give, including its Diploma and the unique certificate of "Teacher of Interior Decoration", the one that the school has ever issued.
Training in ornamental sculpture under Alexander Stirling Calder, in pottery under Leon Volkmar, in water color under H.F. Stratton and Charles R. Dana, in decorative figure painting and composition under H.F. Stratton and Herman Deigendesch, formed the solid foundation on which his life work has been built.
For thirty eight years a member of the faculty of the Pennsylvania Museum Schools as a teacher and lecturer in many subjects. He has , in all that period served fully half of his time for personal work in the field of mural decoration and stained glass, executing commissions too numerous to be mentioned. He likes to recall that the first important commission as a mural painter was the decoration of the auditorium of the Trenton High School at Trenton N.J. in 1907, since which time he has placed mural paintings and stained glass in many other schools.
In 1902-03 the opportunity was presented to write and illustrate a series of text-books for the International Text-book Co. for use in the International Correspondence Schools of Scranton, Pa.
The first of this series was on Water Color Painting and was illustrated profusely with color plates showing successive stages of work. The other subjects were Color Harmony, Plant Study for purposes of design, Linoleum, Carpet, and wall Paper Design.
In 1927 Copeland was commissioned to decorate the new building of the State Bank and Trust Co. of Evanston Ill., Childs and Smith, Architects, Chicago. This work was illustrated in the magazine "Architecture" of January, 1928. At this time he also planned the ceiling decoration of the Law Library of North Western University at McKinlock Campus, Chicago.
His most recent commissions include two large figure windows in the marble stair hall of the William Penn High School in Philadelphia and the painting of a classic landscape composition on the wall of the auditorium stage in the same building.
Also a large portrait relief memorial tablet in bronze to the memory of the late Rev. Russell H. Conwell, executed for the Baptist Temple in Philadelphia.
In 1922 he was given the gold Medal of Award by the Alumni Association of his own school for outstanding achievement, and the same year won the Dana Gold Medal for Water Color Painting awarded annually by the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
Frank and his talented wife Eleanor, who was once his star pupil, spend their summers in European travel and painting or on the fascinating New England coast and in the mountains of Vermont where sketching in watercolors affords both delightful recreation and not infrequently profit and honor.
Their beautiful home studio in a suburb of Philadelphia affords an ideal place for study and work and every spare moment is spent in its charming atmosphere, for they find work in art and the crafts one of the greatest joys in life.