Michael Coppage always knew he wanted to make works of art. The Cincinnati-based contemporary artist remembers being asked what he wanted to be when he grew up—“The police officers and the firefighters came into school and asked us what we wanted to be, and most people say, ‘oh, I want to be a nurse or a doctor or firefighter’ or something like that,” says Coppage. “And I was the only kid in my class who said I wanted to be an artist.”
A Chicago native, Coppage’s art began as self-help and a way to creatively let out the emotions he had been bottling up for some time. “I felt extremely weighed down by this stuff, I’m experiencing these things and carrying all of this baggage—how’s this fair to me? How’s this fair to people who look like me, people from my racial group?” says Coppage.
Creating the kind of art he wanted was not an easy journey for Coppage. “When I tried to verbalize this stuff, it kind of fell on deaf ears,” he says. “I didn’t have the visual vocabulary or even maturity to really take it on and do it as effectively as I am now.”
Over the years, his art has transitioned into a method of creating civil conversation among those who view it. Coppage started gaining local attention after the debut of his collection American+ in 2017, as well as his participation in the Black Lives Matter street mural at City Hall in June 2020. As Coppage gained a platform for his art and his voice, he has appeared on podcasts as well as giving a TEDx speech, and his work appeared at last weekend’s BLINK art and light show featuring local and international talent.
Coppage’s most recent collection, also titled “American+” and currently open at the Weston Art Gallery at the Aronoff Center downtown as part of the FotoFocus World Record photography series, uses provocative visual and audio pieces to address the still-operating racial disparities in American culture.
Those who are able to experience “American+” are given the opportunity to explore and “confront their own personal feelings, based on their lives and truth” according to Coppage. He hopes the collection can give people the chance to sort out these feelings, thoughts and experiences, and move past them.
Coppage also hopes his art continues to be a catalyst for difficult and realistic conversations, despite any negative feedback he receives. “There’s something that I’m unlocking in people that makes them feel discomfort in some sort of way, you know?” Coppage says, “there’s some people who can’t even step foot inside the gallery, so for those people it becomes less about me and my intentions and more about them and who they are.”
“I feel like this is another one of those things where if we don’t pull it out of the closet, dust if off, and look at it for what it is, and have meaningful, realistic conversations about it, we’re never going to be able to really move past it”, says Coppage.
You can see Michael Coppage’s new exhibit “American+” at the Weston Art Gallery, 650 Walnut St., now through November 6.