by Shelby D. Brewer | Photography by Jamison Mosley
Throughout history, many world-famous artists have suffered from afflictions and addictions. Vincent van Gogh, Andy Warhol, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko are just a few examples. Despite their challenges, they created beautiful masterpieces.
The number of creative geniuses who were – and are – tormented by mental illness and addiction has led scientists to examine the link between creativity and mental health.
Little Rock artist Christopher Copeland knows firsthand about the connection between the two.
“The arts have the power to heal people, not only those with mental health issues but also individuals dealing with everyday life challenges,” he says.
Art helped him get through a tragic time in his life. While he wears many hats – artist, art therapist, hairstylist, public speaker – his passion is sharing his story of survival and using his artistic talents to help others overcome adversity.
Copeland is a recovering alcoholic and drug addict who came dangerously close to death. In 2008, his addictions took a toll on his health. He was diagnosed with cirrhosis. He is currently on a waiting list for a liver transplant.
But Copeland remains positive and optimistic. By talking to him, one would never know that he endured intense pain – physically and emotionally – for most of his life.
His addiction began at a very young age. Born and raised in Trumann, Ark., Copeland was very close to his father and grandmother.
“When I was 12, my dad died. That’s when my life changed,” he says. “My mom had to go back to work, and I stayed with my grandmother a lot. That is when I started drinking and drugging. It went on and progressed and progressed throughout the years. At first, I was just a teenager trying to escape.
“Then my grandma, Sinda, died and that devastated me. She influenced my life more than anyone until I met my husband, Scott,” he says. “It didn’t matter what I was doing. She always encouraged me to do more.”
Copeland credits his grandmother for his interest in becoming a hairstylist.
“She had such beautiful, white, long hair. We would sit out front on her church pew, and she taught me how to braid her hair.
“Doing hair was my first passion in my life,” he says. “While I was going to college at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, I studied psychology at night and went to beauty school during the day. I did very well in cosmetology school, and after winning a national competition, my career skyrocketed.”
Copeland started styling hair in Jonesboro in 1986 and opened a salon with 10 booths.
“It was very successful. In two years, it grew so much that I bought a building and renovated it into a big spa.”
The spa, named Christopher’s, had 25 booths and offered massage therapy, pedicures, manicures, skincare, and it also housed a fine jewelry store, a high-end women’s clothing store, as well as a coffee shop.
He became a master stylist and eventually worked for Paul Mitchell. His career took him to New York, Phoenix, Austin and other large cities where he would do hair for major fashion shows. He continued to enter competitions, and he never lost once.
It was during this time of his life that the pressure of juggling school, doing hair and traveling began to wear him down.
“I would drink at night and take drugs during the day to keep going. I guess you could say I was a functional addict. I started getting into cocaine, hallucinogens, crystal meth, pot and hard liquor. When I worked at the spa, I would take uppers during the day, and at night I would drink and take Xanax to sleep.”
Through this, he earned a master’s degree in cosmetology and continued to win big competitions. And then tragedy struck.
“My business burned to the ground. I stood there for eight hours and watched it burn. I had 30 employees with nowhere to go and clients who were booked nine months in advance.”
He carried on and rented a little space to continue his hairstyling career. It was then that he met his husband, Scott. He sold his studio, and they moved to Seattle. While in Seattle, Copeland studied at The Art Institute and Bellevue College.
He and Scott later returned to Arkansas to take care of Scott’s ailing mother. In 2001, they moved to Little Rock, where they opened a studio that carried local art that also provided a space for him to do hair.
Because Copeland uses his hands every day – either for painting or for doing hair – he would get injections to make them mobile so they would not cramp. He did this for 10 years. Eventually, his doctor informed him that he had damaged joints in both hands.
“My doctor said my hands looked like that of an 80-year-old cotton picker,” he says. “I had to have arthroplasty surgery on both hands with a nine-month recovery time for each one. This devastated me because my hands provided me with my main source of income. Meanwhile, I lost a lot of my clients; I couldn’t drive; I had to have occupational therapy at home. I started drinking every day. Really hard.”
After the surgery, he also became addicted to pain pills.
“It was all a heavy load to carry. I was a mess.”
Then he lost someone very close to him – his brother, Jimmy.
“I started drinking really heavy when he died. He was my father figure, my best friend and my world.”
Copeland says he was drinking gallons of vodka a day. It eventually caught up to him. He ruptured his spleen, got a concussion and broke his scapula – all a result from drinking excessively.
“But it didn’t stop me. I was dying, and I knew it. So, I was thinking I might as well die then.”
In 2016, he was admitted into Palmetto Addiction Recovery Center in Rayville, La.
“I was the color of a French’s mustard bottle when I arrived. I weighed 140 pounds. I was so angry with God for not listening to me, and I would tell God that,” he says. “I had so much anger, self-hate and doubt that I behaved like a caged animal, even though going to Palmetto was my own decision.”
He stayed at Palmetto for 90 days, where he received intense counseling and medical care.
“I was in a coma in the ICU three times in 2016 for a week each time. So, the last time I woke up from a coma, I just prayed to God.
“I said, ‘I’ve laid in a bed for years drunk. I’ve laid in bed sick. I’ve been to rehab. I’m doing the right thing now. So, either get me up out of this bed or take me, please. Give me a purpose. Use me.’ And He did!
“The doctors at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock called me a miracle patient,” he says. “They said, ‘You were basically dead. We sent you home for hospice the last time you were here.’ They were amazed.”
Copeland says his first year of recovery was up and down.
“I looked at it like this: God is going to test me until He realizes that I’m for real. And here I am! I’m getting better and better every day. I’m so thankful and grateful for all the friends and support I have here.”
In June, he celebrated his third year of sobriety. While in rehab, he discovered that creating art gave him a sense of peace and self-realization.
During one of his hospital stays, his doctors ordered strict bed rest.
“But I was a hardheaded patient and staying in the bed 24/7 is just not within my power,” he says, laughing. “So, when I could, I painted. I came to the realization that art therapy helped me tremendously.”
His experience inspired him to acquire certification as an art therapist.
“With my background in art and psychology, I thought to myself, ‘Why don’t I do something to pay it forward? I want to give back what’s been given to me.’ To know that I can help one person with art therapy is very rewarding to me!
“I do one-on-one therapy at my house,” he explains. “I work with children who have been abused, addicts, individuals with schizophrenia and mental illnesses, eating disorders, you name it.
“For instance, I’m working with two small children. One was sexually molested. The other one is mentally challenged,” he says. “I love working with all ranges of people. I work with several people who are drug addicts or alcoholics whose therapists have referred them to me. The clients will come to me and do art therapy until they can get to the point of being comfortable about telling their therapist what they have already told me. Usually, the therapists and I report back and forth.”
“Art therapy really brings out their emotions when they are able to put their feelings on paper,” he says. “They can draw it, write it, paint it, whatever they want to do. I love to watch people walk out of therapy class standing tall. A weight has been lifted off their shoulders. I’m so thankful that I get to hear people’s stories and watch their sadness slowly disappear as they release their emotions. If I can help just one person out of a group, I feel I have succeeded.”
In addition to his art therapy gigs, Copeland stays busy traveling and delivering public speaking presentations.
He was recently shocked when he received an email from Johnson & Johnson asking to buy the rights to a piece of his art. It, along with five pieces from international artists, was featured in the company’s “The Art of Ending Stigma” initiative held earlier this year during the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
The exhibit accompanied “The Intersection of Art and Mental Illness,” an evening discussion and celebration of progress in mental health, including new approaches to research and treatment in the field of mental health.
“Since then it’s been crazy,” he says. “I launched my website, cdesignslife.com. Two international competitions invited me to submit work, and my art is presently collected in more than 12 states. And last year, I had four sold-out solo shows,” he says.
He also recently launched a nonprofit project called #HelpingHandsHappyHearts. Its mission is to bring awareness to the damage that stigma causes and the impact it has on individuals. It also aims to offer support to those who deal with stigma and provides resources to teach individuals coping skills.
Copeland started the project in March by asking people to submit their stories of how stigma has affected them. He traveled to nine states, along with the help of volunteers, to interview them and take photos. He is in the process of selecting the stories he will feature on his Facebook page, www.facebook.com/STOPSTIGMA19. He will eventually dedicate a website and Instagram page to the stories as well.
“Our aspiration is to continue to grow throughout the United States in 2019 and to move into Canada in 2020 through networking with other similar projects and spreading the word.”
Copeland has had his own experience with stigma.
“I had a huge clientele, but when I had to quit doing hair, I lost almost all of them. I can’t work in a salon atmosphere because of my cirrhosis. It’s too easy for me to pick up a virus,” he explains. “I called a lot of my friends and clients and invited them to come to my house for their hair appointments. Some of them would say things like, ‘You are not who I thought you were. You are trash.’ But I’m the best I’ve ever been. Regardless, I try to stay positive. Positivity will get you somewhere every time.”
He also stays busy making art. He enjoys making mixed media with oils, acrylics and pen and ink.
“I paint in the daytime when I’m alone, but the majority of my painting takes place when I can’t sleep,” he says. “I’m really into bright, cheerful colors since I got sober. Before, most of my paintings were dark.”
Some of his inspirations are Frida Kahlo, Salvador Dali and Andy Warhol.
No matter what he is doing, he thanks God every day for who he has become today.
“After facing death three times, I wake up every morning with my feet planted firmly on the floor. I thank God for giving me one more day, a half-day, or even an hour. I want to make the most of that day that I possibly can. My aspirations are unlimited. I want to live life to the fullest one day at a time.”