The Looking Places: A Painter Finds His Vantage Point
by Marisa Fulton Benjamin '03
At first glance, the landscape paintings created by Assistant Professor of Art Steve Cope, M.F.A., appear to be a faithful reflection of the earth’s wondrous beauty: a crisp stream cuts through a lush wood in “Split” (2014); a river of snow creeps down a mountain in “View” (2013); a spiny cactus rises against the desert sky in “Arizona” (2012).
But there is more to Cope’s landscape series (2009-2014) than meets the eye. To construct each piece, he adopted a combination of real and imaginative elements, turning a literal representation into his own creation. “I used as many sources as I could get my hands on,” Cope explains. “While many of the paintings resemble the places they depict, they are a composite of different photographs, drawings, nostalgic memories and dreams that all come together to create the finished work.”
Using oil paint and pencil on custom-made birch ply panels, Cope’s paintings focus on vista or large-scale landscapes, and interior, woodsy scenes. An imaginary form often interrupts the realism — or a form repeated from a previous painting — adding a synthetic element to the composition. “I may use the same tree in several paintings, or include an element that would not be found in the geographical location I’m painting,” he says. “It could be a rock, a bird, a pool. I have a lexicon of forms that make up the landscape. And in the middle of the process, I sometimes start making things up.
“For example, ‘Arizona’ is highly synthetic,” Cope continues. “The cactuses featured might not exist in Arizona. And the bush you see in the painting is actually found in New England.”
Creating a work that represents a slightly altered reality has resonated with his audience. “At first glance, people see the landscape and usually respond to the amount of detail. But over time, the strangeness of the image unfolds. It taps us on the shoulder and reminds us ‘this is a painting,’” he says.
The miniscule dimension of many of Cope’s paintings adds a special allure to the panoramas. Dubbed the “miniature landscape series,” these canvases range in size from one by five inches, to 28 by seven inches. To create each painting, Cope uses powerful work lights, strong reading glasses and extremely thin brushes that are tapered like needles.
The ability to shrink a boundless landscape into something that fits in one’s hand intrigues Cope.
“I find that reducing something so large and vast into such a small piece of work is fascinating, perhaps because people can see the entire experience all at once,” Cope explains. “The ability to see the landscape in its completeness gives us a feeling of discovery, as if we are peering into a different world strangely similar to our own.”
Born in New England, Cope’s work has been featured in many solo and group shows, and is collected in both private and public collections. He started painting landscapes when he was a Boston University graduate student.
“I would put a canvas in the back of my car and drive around, looking for a good vantage point,” he says. “I’d take different turns, not knowing exactly where I was going. In a way, you could say my paintings are about me searching for something interesting to look at.”
Cope’s students benefit from learning to find the beauty in the every day. “We tend to save our visual experiences for places like the Grand Canyon or Niagara Falls,” he says. “They are undoubtedly great-looking places. But, there are great-looking places around us all the time: the shadow made by your car on the tree; the atmosphere in the clouds.
“I try to teach my students how to look and see: how to be visually aware. I tell them not to forget how amazing the earth looks.”