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November 9, 2009 / Wendy Joan

The Master Craftsman

Below is a profile of Harvey Copeland, a master craftsman from Sarasota, Florida. I wrote this story a little over a year ago, as a writing sample for NPR.

Keep in mind that Harvey’s story is still looking for a print home to receive the professional and artistic recognition he deserves. . .

Enjoy!

Harvey Copeland- Carver of Fiberglass, Maker of Magic


A long driveway—neatly strewn with crushed Milwaukee Blue empties and flanked by  naked female mannequins—leads to the back door of Harvey Copeland’s house. An overweight Welsh Corgie, Charlie, comes running out of the garden, along with Harvey’s wife, Karen, wearing a fluorescent green, pink and yellow printed housedress.

“Harvey told me you would be coming,” Karen greets me. “He just didn’t say that you were coming today.”
Harvey Copeland sits at the kitchen counter, his head down, leafing through the catalogue of a local craft store. The linoleum floors are weathered with decades of comings and goings, offset by pristinely organized countertops. Masons jars are displayed on the wall; Copeland’s pipe and silver lighter are pushed to the side and a curious black cat named Phantom curls up in an out-of-place plastic bin. Charlie excitedly shuffles in and out of the kitchen before settling down, as if he wants to listen to what Harvey is about to say, too.

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As we begin talking, Copeland keeps his head down, and throughout the afternoon he seldom lifts his head to make eye contact. CNN blares in the background, and the voice of Barack Obama and fiscal experts mix with Harvey’s voice, clear and precise but soft, with a hint of a drawl from his native North Carolina.

Harvey Copeland is a master craftsman: an expert wood and fiberglass carver, and one of a handful of artisans in American who can restore fiberglass.

At age 11, Copeland began woodcarving as a means to pay his way through Boy Scout summer camp. Copeland, who taught himself, makes his work sound so easy, saying, “you just do it, you just pick up a hatchet or a knife and you go for it.”
But to call Copeland simply a woodcarver or a craftsman is an incomplete description. Copeland became these professions, and more, when his career took an offbeat turn. Copeland began working for Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus, headquartered in Sarasota, Florida in the 1960s, and in addition to craftsmanship, became responsible for constructing illusions for the public’s imagination.

Over the years, Copeland built 22 circus shows for the company. For nearly 15 years, Copeland taught at Ringling’s Clown College, working under Bill Ballantine, an artist, illustrator and writer who literally ran off and joined the circus and who became so skilled and innovative in clowning that he served as the dean of Clown College from 1969-1977. Copeland said teaching was the most memorable part of his career, because “we didn’t know what the hell we were doing, we just did it.” Copeland and Ballantine, both illustrators and sign writers, reintroduced “pure color” to their students, creating the brightest shows in Clown College history. Building circus sets and props would not be complete if Copeland did not build tricks, and he built them all, by hand, the universally known illusions.

During the last half century, Copeland has worked with and befriended circus legends, entertainment world moguls, aerialists, clowns and contortionists, proving that a man can build a career and create a life based entirely on illusions. Copeland told me about working closely with Lou Jacobs, a master clown for Ringling Brothers for over 60 years, and the admiration Marcel Marceau and Jacobs had for one another:

“Lou Jacobs met Marcel Marceau, and they had wanted to meet each other for years and they finally met at the van Wezel theatre in Sarasota, and both these 80 year old men cried when they met, because they had such admiration for one another. I wish I could have been a fly on the wall in that one.”

But Copeland is a fly on the wall. He has little to no credit attributed to his name. A dusty Ringling Brothers clock in his studio is the only memento that Copeland displays from his time in the circus. His home and studio are a testament to his own work, filled to the brim with decades of carvings. A thin pink file envelope, labeled “HARVEY,” includes a modest collection of newspaper clippings; five at the most, of Copeland’s work in Sarasota- his set design for Twelfth Night, mailbox design and an enormous fiberglass orchid. But Copeland is the frontrunner, the go-to man when it comes to fiberglass carving and mannequin restoration. Saks Fifth Avenue recommends him by name as the only man you should trust with mannequin restoration.

Well into his eighties, Copeland still spends his days in his backyard studio. He’s currently working on turning JFK half-dollar coins into rings, using coins from 1964; the last year pure silver coins were minted. Copeland’s humor is brash, and he wears it on his sleeve. Copeland asks me if I “know what the finger is,” and shows me a wooden walking stick that he is carving, a hand with a middle finger sticking up.

With Copeland’s advancing age and declining health, the question of longevity comes into play. Who is going to carry on the tradition of an already nearly lost art? According to Copeland, it doesn’t look good:

“These modern designers don’t know how to design, they draw something on the back of an envelope they do something and call that a design and they get several thousands of dollars for it.”

(Photos from ralphpucci.net)

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One Comment

Leave a Comment
  1. Pam Biddlecombe / Nov 9 2009 3:31 pm

    Enjoyed this article. I can imagine how interesting that interview/meeting was for you as a reporter. Mr. Copeland appears to be rather modest about his skills, and modesty is always so attractive.
    Perhaps you could meet with him again for another interview?

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