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2023 Walton County Artist of the Year: Bradley Copeland

Bradley Copeland is passionate about having a passion – and for her it’s art. Not just the creation – but how it’s a channel to express feelings and ideas, give purpose and heal us, physically and spiritually.

For Bradley, painting is a metaphor for navigating her life’s story, and when she began to open herself to the clues and symbols the paint presented instead of imposing the meaning, magical things began to happen.  But it took a painful push from the universe to learn this lesson.

Painting has always been the 25-year-old artist’s favorite thing – her escape – since childhood; yet she really didn’t consider it a calling, just something she did on the side while trying to figure out life’s purpose.

The 2018 Auburn University graduate only declared as an Art Major in her last college semester.  She did an Artist apprenticeship in Georgia before settling in Walton County in 2020, working at a local boutique while painting on the side.

Still, she was excited to work on her first solo show in her new studio, even taking a month off work to prepare. Two days before opening, Bradley spilled a pot of boiling water on herself; she couldn’t walk or work, only endure painful, daily treatment for her severe burns.

“I was close to losing everything,” says Bradley; “I couldn’t go back to work, but I had some commissions lined up, and then COVID happened … I couldn’t show, my only option was to paint.”

Bradley began promoting her work online, and interest snowballed. Suddenly she was so busy painting she couldn’t go back to her retail job, and this prolific young artist realized art was her life’s passion.

 “I think everyone has gifts and abilities and things we love, and we are supposed to listen to clues in life … the Universe forced me and I’m so thankful,” says Bradley, whose story had just begun.

“Art is all over the place,” proclaims Bradley; “Everything I see in life I translate in as many different ways I can represent as possible.”

This wasn’t always her practice; in fact, Bradley became easily bored or discouraged by her detail-driven, hyper-realistic imagery, frustrated by her efforts to share personal experiences with the art she loved.

So, Bradley gave herself assignments of random topics to paint, with the only rule being it had to be ugly and painted in as many different forms as possible. Something amazing began to happen -- Bradley started having fun with her art.

“The assignments gave me that thing that was missing – and I have it now – I wasn’t playing, I wasn’t having fun” Bradley shares.

Drag queens, with their bold, bright lips was an early assignment, leading to the Lips paintings -- that opened up the local art scene to Bradley.

“The Lips are a symbol of femininity in raw forms, so much strength and ugliness in a beautiful way, and drag queens -- for a man who has more privilege – to put on women’s clothing, is a huge sign of strength,” says Bradley.

She continues to use symbols in her work to represent different stories or hidden meanings, like the spirals inside a seashell which are also like the solar system, and to help her make sense of things.

Influenced by plants and natural settings, Bradley sees nature it as a metaphor for her life in which everything, good or bad, happens for a reason. She draws inspiration from Austrian symbolist painter Gustav Klimt who saw beyond the visible into the abstract.

Bradley has learned to trust the paint applied to canvas or other mediums, knowing any mistake that happens -- a splash from a dropped brush or sneeze -- serves a purpose, and ultimately becomes an essential part of the piece, just as it does with life.

Walton County’s 2023 Artist of the Year says it feels amazing to have been selected for this recognition. In her interview Bradley says she was honest in telling her story, and her selection was the greatest compliment.

“The reason I paint is to process or sort my feelings or to make other people feel something, and all of that has to with my story; it’s behind every piece that I make,” says Bradley.

The artist, who resides in Santa Rosa Beach, has more than 600 pieces in her collection with many works appearing in galleries across the Southeast, as well as her own studio; she has also appeared in several group and solo shows. She draws inspiration from the surrounding arts community, filled with friends, business owners and creatives with whom she’s bonded.

Still, Bradley’s passion for Art is exceeded only by her desire to share how it has the power to heal others, just as it continues to do for her. 

She teaches Art classes weekly at the Walton Correctional Institution in Defuniak Springs. She encourages residents to loosen up with the same messy process she uses, allowing the paint to dictate where it goes, and then finding the pictures or bits of beauty the paint brings out.   

“I want to reinforce the idea that the mistakes and the hardships or ugly spots of our life are purposeful, and we have the opportunity to make something out of it,” says Bradley. It’s a lesson that can apply to anyone – imprisoned physically or mentally or spiritually; this is the story Bradley loves to share – through her art.

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