Talbert House housing supervisor Michael Coppage envisions understanding and empathy through his compelling portraits of clients. The Chicago native came to Cincinnati with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in fine arts from the Memphis College of Art and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, respectively. That education was recently recognized with the Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Foundation’s Enlightenment Award, for Coppage’s efforts to enhance the public’s understanding of mental illness and to decrease the stigma often associated with it.
Coppage also is affiliated with Cincinnati Children’s as a mental health specialist, facilitates a bipolar support group through Talbert House’s Prevention and Education program at Christ Hospital and is the vice chair for the Hamilton County Recovery Center. One of his portraits is the basis for an ArtWorks mural at Goetz Alley and 13th Street in Over-the-Rhine.
Coppage’s portraits of 23 African-American males with mental illness make up a series entitled “Stigmatized: The African-American Male and Schizophrenia.” They were first shown in 2012 at the Fresh A.I.R. (Artists in Recovery) Gallery in Columbus and were exhibited later that year at Xavier University for the NAMI (National Alliance on Mental Illness) annual gala. His work may be seen at www.michaelcoppage.com.
Q: What brought you to the path of social work, and how did that lead to Cincinnati?
A: I worked at a youth residential facility for three years in Philadelphia while I was in graduate school. After moving to Ohio, I looked for similar work in Cincinnati and had offers from both Talbert House and the Cincinnati College of Art in the same week. I chose Talbert House.
A: This particular client was known for having severe and persistent mental illness as well as behavioral issues. He was physically intimidating and menacing, but at the end of the day he wanted to fit in and be “normal.” He was young, African-American and close to me in age. I thought to myself: I could be him if a few details had been different. He was the impetus but since I could not create an image in his likeness, I thought about distinct physical characteristics that stood out and created images based on those. This process resulted in the 23 images for “Stigmatized.”
Q: You have said that your work creates a way to discuss sensitive and uncomfortable topics such as mental illness. Can you share how that has played out through your artwork?
A: My work reminds the viewer that the mentally ill are individuals equally as diverse as the rest of us. Very sensitive and uncomfortable conversations turn into intimate queries for information and education after people realize the issues my work addresses. People come to me and tell me about their struggles with mental illness and it becomes an impromptu therapy session. My work has been a social commentary and sparked hundreds of conversations that would have gone unspoken if not for the artwork.
Q: In what ways has your artwork provided insights as to how you approach your social work profession?
A: Being an artist has primed me to look for creative solutions to problems I face in the work environment. Having a vision that informs your decisions is one of the most important guiding factors. I can conceptualize an idea starting with the big picture and systematically work through the details needed to bring the vision to life.
My artwork and my chosen profession feed and inform the other. I have been in the mental health field 13 years and being an artist has strengthened my ability to connect and relate to our clients and employees, leading to beneficial relationships and positive outcomes. This is an accomplishment I am most proud of.
Q: What do you hope that people will take away from an encounter with your work?
A: I would hope they leave with a better sense of empathy and a call to action: volunteering, checking in and up on folks, donating money, supplies or resources, or educating themselves more on specific diagnosis and treatments.
Q: Is there anything else we should have asked?
A: “When are you available to paint my portrait?” All of my portraits are not about the mentally ill. I often paint commissions or ask interesting people for permission to paint them so I can take a break from such polarizing topics.