I visited my friend Charles Couper the other day to wish him a happy birthday. He had recently returned from a trip to Rhode Island where he spent the winter creating a series of pastels that many of his local followers say represent some of his best work. Couper is 92 and as mentally acute as he was 12 years ago when I wrote about him for a local newspaper. Since then, his life has undergone some dramatic changes. Marge, his wife and great supporter of his art, died a few years back. They had been together since their twenties. He now spends his winters in New England.
During the course of four hours we talked about politics, gardening and art along with a book he read recently on the philosophy of war.
Here's some background on the artists from my article:
On a meadowed ridge overlooking the Bear River lies the studio of artist, Charles Couper. With its high ceilings and light filtering in from a large north-facing window, it is a place where the colours are warm and vibrant; a setting that is as welcoming as the vague dreaminess of a warm summer afternoon. It is here, along an expanse of whitewashed walls leading up a narrow staircase to a loft, where a visitor can glimpse some 65 years of the artist’s development. From large pasteled landscapes and whimsical self-portraits to Vermeer-like ensembles of old bottles and buoys, each conveys Couper’s signature use of light, colour and composition to capture the sensation and dignity of commonplace objects.
Couper, a long-time interpreter of the still life genre, continues to paint several hours a day in hopes, he says, to preserve an artistic tradition that seems to be fading. “In the kind of world we live in it is sometimes difficult to keep up the moral courage to think of painting as a means to inspire people,” Couper says. “Yet I never tire of the ongoing quest for this honesty in art.”
Born in New Hampshire and educated at the Vesper George School of Art in Boston, Couper was drawn to still life because it “presented the greatest challenge in composition and ones ability to relate things.”
But there were also practical considerations. Still life, where the objects are stationary and permanent, as opposed to portraiture or landscape painting, gave him the freedom to divide his time between developing his art and supporting his family. In the early years Couper worked on the East and West Coasts of the United States as a night cook, print shop machine operator, labourer on the Pacific Coast Highway and an aircraft mechanic, before he settled into a long stretch as an art teacher in Boston and on Cape Cod.
Along the way his reputation as a prominent still life artist gained ground. Couper’s work has been exhibited throughout North America and received awards from the Allied Artists of America, the Pastel Society of Canada and other prestigious organizations. His work is archived in the American Museum of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C.
On a trip to Nova Scotia in the early 1980s to trace his family’s lineage, Couper and his wife, Marge, came upon the land in Bear River where they eventually built a house and made it their permanent home. He became a Canadian citizen in 1987, a choice he has never regretted. “Nova Scotia is a good place to think things out from an artist’s point of view,” he says. “The people here are less aggressive and more thoughtful.”
Compared to the United States, he adds, “Canada is a more humane democracy. Social reform is more prevalent here. You don’t see this tremendous dichotomy between the rich and the poor.”
These days Couper is in his studio by 9 a.m. and works until early afternoon. From there he stills tends a large organic vegetable garden that produces enough food to last year round. Despite the shift in focus, he says, “I’m always thinking about painting and what I’m going to do next. As a painter you’re always looking at how you can translate what you see or imagine on to the canvas.”
It is perhaps in his studio where he can think most clearly without coming up against an overlay of cultural or political distractions. On this recent day, his easel cradles a still life of wooden buoys he has collected over the years. He stands back a moment, his eyes, the colour of robin’s eggs, contrast with a thick shock of white hair. His posture is arched and intent. The scene catches the quintessence of Couper as the ultimate artist-maestro.
“All great art aspires to music,” he says. “In my work I want it to give the feeling of music—repetition, colour, line value and texture. Finally there is the vision path to capture the eye and let it follow the harmony of the piece.”
For now, Couper says he has reached an artistic peak and will keep painting as long as he is able. “I’m still healthy enough mentally, spiritually and physically to use the experience I’ve accumulated over the years. But you can’t deny the debilitating course that life takes with age.”
Besides, he adds, “You only fail as an artist if you quit. And to paraphrase Leonardo DeVinci when he was in his 80s, ‘Still, I learn.”’