"These are products of the area," says artist Ron Copeland, pointing to the reassembled bits of metal signs that make up one of his pieces. "As am I."
Copeland, a native of Canton, Ohio, reckons that he would have never become an artist had he grown up in Southern California, where every square mile is developed and redeveloped, or the Great Plains, which was never thickly industrialized. His art is an outgrowth of his love of crawling into abandoned places and collecting discarded objects. Only the postindustrial Rust Belt has enough vacant steel mills and boarded-up businesses to create a fetish for that kind of thing.
"I never know what I'll find," says Copeland, whose only formal art training was a screen-printing class in a high-school vo-tech program. "There could be enough wood for an entire show's worth [of screen prints] or some angry squatters." He also shifts through Dumpsters and used material at construction stores.
One piece in his current show at ModernFormation Gallery looks as if a stack of street signs had been shaped into a square, neatly cut into a Rubik's cube and then twisted like one. Another work, large enough to sprawl across an average bedroom wall, is an anachronistic hodgepodge. "There are signs in there that are 40, 50 and 80 years old," he says. "So it's like you are looking at [the same] space in varying time periods."
The concept of time is crucial to Copeland's work. Another corner of his show (which also features several screen prints) is dedicated to assemblages of furniture. A ladder appears to be phasing through a wooden chair, a find from a shuttered church building. The chair "lived out its entire existence," says Copeland. "It was built. People used it. Someone might have sat in it on Thanksgiving. My purpose is to extend its lifespan as a piece of art."
Copeland doesn't make art just to connect to his roots in a broad way. His grandfather was a carpenter and his father was a welder. They built what Copeland now repurposes. "Their work definitely impacts mine," he says. Thinking back to an era of more stable career paths, he adds, "If I had lived in their time I would probably have a real job."