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Trevor Copenhaver: Setting his work before new eyes

Trevor Copenhaver | Photo: Steve Lee

Clad in paint-smeared T-shirt and jeans, Trevor Copenhaver is dancing with a large canvas; and by dancing I mean painting. The dance routine is simple: step up, brush brush, step back, pause. Step up, brush smudge, step back, pause. Copenhaver is working feverishly to complete 20 new works for an upcoming exhibition. Even though opening night is weeks away, the clock is ticking – thickly applied oils require time to “cure” and dry before being placed in frames.

Trevor is not only one of the most gifted artists I’ve known, he is also a good friend and I admire his talent, intellect and wit. Spending time in his San Diego studio is always a pleasure – I enjoy the smell of oil paints and the warmth of sunshine spilling through the open garage door. The small space is crammed with frames, canvasses and paints. Articulated wooden artist models and various knickknacks crowd the shelves. Sun-bleached skulls hang on the walls. Classic jazz music, the melodic soulful Etta James, swoons softly in the background.

His paintings are recognizable for their well-crafted blend of finely-tuned technique and rugged rawness. He excels at creating texture and depth, starting with the skies. Skies are painted quickly – mounds of pigment are applied with the thin blade of a palette knife, then “faded” with a bristled brush. The illusion of depth is further enhanced by his method of layering the canvas with color and varying degrees of focus from back to front.

“You can’t look at the sky the same way you look at a tree branch; the sky is nebulous and infinite,” he said.

Tijuana: A street musician lights a cigarette at dusk.

Trevor Copenhaver knows a thing or two about skies; he grew up in a small community beneath the endless blue firmament yawning over Montana. Clancy, home to 1,661 souls, is a town with “a post office, a school, one bar, two churches and no stop light,” surrounded by snow-capped mountains and emerald forests of tall pine trees. His father, a retired draftsman for the state Department of Highways, encouraged Trevor to paint from an early age, and gave him brushes and supplies as birthday gifts. They often worked side by side.

Trevor’s formal art instruction began in high school, but intensified while he earned an Associate Degree in Advertising Design and Illustration from the Colorado Institute of Art. Those formative years were molded by memorable instructors; an illustrator who worked on Madison Avenue in the ’50s, taught him about precision; another taught him inking, technical drafting and how to use French curves and T-squares; another who once worked for Hallmark cards, taught him about color theory, complimentary colors and how to paint “big watery eyes;” and the conceptual thinker, too, who pressed him to work in colored markers and prepare slick advertisement mockups. Trevor learned how to paint fast and to not overthink the piece. To step away from the canvas and regain objectivity.

Copenhaver described the upcoming exhibit as an “en plein aire inspired collection of landscapes”, but rather than working outdoors directly in the glare of day, he renders “studies in light and shadow” based on images from personal photos. He set down his brush and showed me his latest body of work, allowing time to view painting after painting, after painting. The strength, range and depth of the new collection is jaw-dropping. One piece in particular caught my eye.

Sedona is a wind-whipped work reminiscent of the turbulence captured in Van Gogh’s Starry Night. The viewer is caught up in the twisted trunk of a gnarled juniper pine and a vortex of swirling shrubs. Trevor said he used “loose” brush strokes to achieve the effect. Which means he starts slow at first, limbering up – exercises for artists, before approaching the canvas. Later in the day, he paints with gusto and zest. Going with the flow. Loose.

Sail Away: A rocky coastline and an island offshore.

There are a lot of trees in his new collection. “Why trees?” I asked.

“I’ve always looked up to trees,” he replied with a chuckle.

But the range of the new assemblage is more than eye-catching coastlines and landscapes. There are also several paintings of rusted roadside relics, the sort of vestiges one would encounter driving along historic Route 66; abandoned motor lodges, and weather-worn signs. He called these paintings his Vegas series.

Copenhaver has been exhibiting his creations since 2001, and his work has been previously published. He is a member of the San Diego Art Institute and has been selected to exhibit in several local juried presentations. He says he wants to explore more abstract pieces and has been encouraged by other artists to expand in that direction. “Besides, they’re a lot of fun to paint,” he added.

Oak Canyon Trail: Blustery morning clouds with sunlight breaking through.

We mused about the meaning of success over a couple of cold beers. I said success would be writing a massive best-selling novel. Trevor said, “Success is not measured by sales.” He went on to explain success rather, is measured by exposure. To meet people and “set his work before new eyes.”

New eyes are encouraged to view his latest exhibition. Paintings by Trevor Copenhaver runs May 2 – July 31 at The Frame Maker, 3102 Reynard Way in San Diego.

Trevor told about how his dad called him up after he’d received the postcard invitation to the upcoming show. The postcard depicts an undulating landscape of green and blue, a yin and yang between earth and sky. Trevor laughed when he related how his father asked him if he’d “put earth tones in the sky?”

I had to admit I didn’t get the joke.

Sedona: A twisted juniper growing in red rocks.

“You always put earth tones in the sky”, he explained patiently. “Because the earth is reflected in the clouds.”

Like I said, Trevor Copenhaver knows a thing or two about skies. The sky is where he begins. The sky is where he dances.



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Posted by on Apr 16, 2015. Filed under Entertainment Feature, Section 4A. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

1 Comment for “Trevor Copenhaver: Setting his work before new eyes”

  1. I went to the Artist’s Reception last night, and I’m glad I did. Several paintings were sold right away (although buyers can’t take them home until the exhibit ends in July). So the gallery guests liked what they saw.

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