Darrell Copeland

Monday 9 July 2018

On carrying out some preliminary research into Darrell's work, I discovered his fantastic wall compositions and instantly fell in love with his work. What struck me initially was the textures he manages to incorporate into the structures and how these fantastic pieces are turned. You want to touch them and discover more about them. I then found his sculptural turnings, his teapots, and wondered if there was any limit to this man's incredible talent with wood.


Born in Mississippi in 1954, Darrell grew up in South Louisiana and lived most of his adult life in New Orleans. While pursuing a degree in pharmacy, he realised he had chosen the wrong career path and needed a more hands-on, creative career. In search of a new direction, Copeland became intrigued with the art of haircutting: “It was the first time I began to practise three-dimensional shaping and applied principles of line, balance, design, and form. Each client represented a new art piece. For 25 years sculpting hair was a perfect fit. And 21 of those years I co-owned and managed a successful salon with my wife”, he tells me. Driven by a love for architecture, Darrell and his wife also purchased and refurbished residential and commercial real estate to flip or to maintain as rental properties. In addition to attending business and personnel management courses, over the years he took drawing classes and apprenticed two years with an abstract stone carver. After a life-changing car accident in 2000, Darrell and his wife made the decision to sell their business and real estate investments to focus on their health and create new careers: “We moved to the mountains of western North Carolina. Here I am passionately pursuing my dream of creating visual art.”

Discovering woodturning

So how did Darrell discover woodturning after a rather convoluted career involving pharmacy and hairdressing? I was eager to find out. He tells me that after moving to North Carolina, he attended a meeting with Carolina Mountain Woodturners, a chapter of the American Association of Woodturners (AAW), and saw his first lathe demonstration: “Having worked three-dimensionally throughout my career, this really got my attention and consideration for wood as a medium. The first thing I turned was a Ray Key box. I guess you could say, after that there was no turning back.” Darrell purchased a complete workshop including his big Green General and designed and built his studio to house it.

Turning style

I was also intrigued to hear how Darrell describes his style of work and his various influences. He explains that primarily, wood is the main medium and the core structure in his forms. He loves the natural grain and warmth of wood along with its ability to hold shape and accept surface manipulation: “I often take advantage of the inherent characteristic of wood and create pieces to celebrate its natural beauty.”

In his current body of work, Darrell explains that he has moved to a mixed medium, incorporating wood, texture, and paint to create representational, nonobjective, and abstract art for pedestals and walls: “I turn multiple elements of simple form and have them interplay with one another or assemble them to create a single composition. The curved and textured surfaces are designed to play with the reflectance of light and colour and to establish a rhythmic pattern that evokes underlying visual energy,” he tells me.

Inspirational sources

So what inspires Darrell Copeland? He comments that he finds inspiration from many sources, namely nature, architecture, modern and contemporary art, events of the day and many life experiences. His wall compositions, in my opinion, are very indicative of architectural and three-dimensional elements, and they also have a very contemporary, conceptual and representational feel. This is a turner who can creatively fuse many different inspirational themes and create pieces of work that beg you to find out more about them. A rare gift.

In terms of how his work has changed, Copeland tells me that when he first started, he was caught up in the natural beauty of wood and the technical aspects of turning. With a focus on tool control and wall thickness, he made a lot of utilitarian bowls and hollow vessels – a far cry from the pieces he creates nowadays: “I have followed a natural progression from total lathe work with respect for the natural characteristics of wood to my current body of work, which many question as being made of wood. Now the lathe is only one tool of many that I use to create my work and wood is now not only a medium to shape, but to carve, texture, and paint.”

In terms of inspiration from other turners, Darrell says that there have been many influences throughout his life, but the work of Constantine Brancusi helped him realise that he needed to create art: “It happened on a museum tour as I entered a room to see front centre 'Bird in Space'. Its energy filled the room. As I walked around it, admiring its simple form, I could feel the spirit of this majestic bird and thought – “how could a piece of stone appear so light and expressive?” This experience set me on a course of working three- dimensionally.”

In his opinion, the best thing about turning is having a process to create shapes. However, he could create shapes with a variety of tools: “For me, a deeper and an even greater thing about turning is the actual turning community: hobbyist, professionals, and collectors. One doesn't need to own a lathe to be part of this community, just an interest in wood and a willingness to share. In this community, I have met some of the kindest and most interesting people I know. And through this common bond of turning, I have forged great relationships and true friends.” I am always interested to hear about the ways in which woodturners promote themselves, especially given the speed at which the internet is developing. I noticed that Darrell has a very comprehensive website which showcases his work and contains biographical information. He explains that, in his early days while turning vessels and bowls he did a few craft shows, but chose not to aggressively promote himself until he had a clear direction of the type of work he wanted to represent him. “Several years back I transitioned into my current work and entered it into a juried exhibition. Since then I have continued to participate in juried and invitational exhibitions. This has allowed my work to be purchased by collectors and a museum – Mobile Museum of Art,” he explains.

Work space

I asked Darrell about the space in which he creates his stunning objects, and he explains that, initially, he purchased enough tools to fill a complete woodworking studio from an ageing turner who wanted to settle his estate. Over the years, he has added and replaced tools, but this was a great starting place. “I designed and built my studio. It is 1,000 sq ft with a garage door for easy passage of materials, tools, finished work, and three large picture windows to let in light and view of the mountains. I have three lathes, power and hand tools, an arsenal of turning tools, and a good selection of both rock and blues recorded music.”

In terms of specific tools that he uses to create these pieces, he tells me that he doesn't really have a tool in his workshop that he would like to sacrifice; he uses them all and always wants more. However, he would really be lost without his rotary carvers, burrs, chisels, and paints.

In terms of work ethos, Darrell was told this once while attempting a task for the first time: “When you're green you're growing; when you're ripe you're rotten.” The person who imparted this knowledge went on to explain that it was OK to try new things, to make mistakes, to build on your successes, to manage your risk, but to never stop challenging yourself. This mantra has really stuck with him and sums up his attitude in terms of how he approaches his work and life in general. Darrell says that he hopes to always stay 'Green'.

When looking at Darrell's wall sculptures I wondered about the process of making a piece and how long, typically, a piece like this would take to create. He explains that this type of work, by its nature, is labour intensive and involves several disciplines: turning, carving, texturing, painting, and assembling. “It all depends on the size and scope of the work. A wall hanging may take two to three months to complete,” he comments.

The future

So where does Darrell see his career heading? He tells me that he is on a path to study, experiment, and create pieces that speak to a broad audience. In addition to appealing to private collectors, Darrell would like to see his work in public spaces: “A long term goal is to create large scale pieces and to work with other mediums. As I continue to develop techniques that are unique to my work, I would like to demonstrate and teach.”

In terms of highs and lows, he explains that, to date, the highest point of his woodturning career happened the day he conceived his first abstract piece, 'Harvest Moon'. “My turning and design skills had come together to allow me to create and complete this piece. I knew I had found the direction in which I wanted to take my work.”

Darrell is thankful for the fact that he has not, yet, experienced 'a career low'. He knows that any cause that prevented him from physically creating his work would be very hard for him to bear.

Darrell's aims and aspirations are based on knowing that throughout his life, he has been the happiest and most successful when creating a physical interpretation of what he sees, hears, feels or imagines. “I plan on doing this for the rest of my life,” he tells me.

Finally, in terms of the future, Darrell was recently selected as one of five participants to attend the 2012 International Turning Exchange sponsored by the Center for Art in Wood (The Turning Center). This is an important event in the woodturning world. Darrell tells me that he had to apply and have his application juried for acceptance, which proved to be a very rich experience for him. He comments that he is most looking forward to the opportunity to experience both professional and personal growth while observing the processes of the other artists, experimenting with new tools and concepts, and taking in all that the ITE fellowship offers. We are sure that his body of extraordinary work will continue to develop and enrich many more people around the world.