By Sheridan Wimmer on March 23, 2023
Kansas artist showcases love of prescribed burning in the Flint Hills
Louis Copt has a passion for art and Kansas landscapes
“You have arrived at your destination,” Google maps told me as I started up the driveway. I questioned Google, but when I saw a painting of a barn on the side of a shed, I knew I had indeed been led to the correct home north of Lawrence.
Stepping inside the home of Louis and Phyllis Copt takes you on a journey of photos, paintings, sculptures and even a wood-fired oven perfect for pizzas. There’s no lack of interest as your eyes wander through the home – and no shortage of laughter from the married couple of 52 years.
One image displayed is of the couple from their wedding day. Another is from their honeymoon where they hitchhiked through Europe.
“This is a bag of raisins,” Phyllis says as she points to the photo. “I didn’t know what a kilo was at the time, so I ordered that, and here we were with our two-pound bag of raisins.”
“Those raisins probably saved our lives,” Louis jokes.
Developing the Kansas work ethic
Louis was born and raised in Emporia. But his time spent with his French-Swiss grandparents on a farm near Osage City fixed fond memories of milking cows and chasing chickens.
“My grandparents never had anything mechanized on their farm,” Louis says. “They worked everything by horse and wagon. They were strong. You have to be tough and smart to make a living on the land. That work ethic is how I think of what I do now as an artist – you have to work at it every day.”
Not only was his work ethic influenced by his grandparents, his love of Kansas and its landscape, too, was shaped by the childhood he enjoyed on their farm.
“Running around on the farm instilled a love for Kansas and its landscapes,” Louis says. “Specifically, I remember the barn being the nucleus of the farm. That’s where the cattle were, the horses, the hay. That’s where my inspiration for my barn collection comes from.”
Collecting pasture burns
His love of Kansas landscapes is evident in his other collection – ones that showcase the springtime prescribed burns on their land to rejuvenate growth and protect against wildfires.
Prescribed burns have been used in the Flint Hills for thousands of years. Native Americans used fire, which they called “the red buffalo”. The fires cause the grass to green up quickly which attracts the bison.
“It’s a renewal,” Louis says. “Burning is a positive thing. It is a practice that keeps the Flint Hills the Flint Hills. It is also an important stage in range management.”
Louis works directly with farmers and ranchers he’s become friends with over the years. The respect Louis has for farmers is evident in his work.
“Farmers are the salt of the Earth,” he says. “They’re stewards of the land and love what they do, and it’s their passion. There’s a shared connection between the ranchers I work with and the work I do because there’s a mutual respect and love for the land.”
Since prescribed burning in the Flint Hills requires specific weather conditions, (wind direction and speed are critical to a safe and successful burn) Louis and his contacts have a two-way system of getting in touch with each other when a controlled burn is planned.
“I’ll go out and photograph every spring to get inspiration photos of the controlled burns,” Louis says. “There’s a window of about one to two hours where the light is perfect. If it’s in the middle of the day, there isn’t a lot of drama. If you get the images too late, all you can see are the flames.”
From those photos, which Louis has collected binders through the years, Louis paints what he calls a preservation of the past.
“I see my work as preserving a bit of Kansas for future generations,” he says. “You look at paintings of Paris from the 1800s and it’s this little slice of history that’s been captured. That’s how I want my paintings to reflect Kansas – a look back on what Kansas looked like.”
Giving way to renewal
Louis sees his journey of becoming the artist he is now as a renewal of its own. Early in his career, he was a journalist at the Emporia Gazette. When the Copts’ son, Nathan, was 2 years old, they moved to Germany for approximately a year.
When they came back to the United States in 1976, they settled in Lawrence – and after a few homes, they eventually designed and built the home they’re in now – complete with a studio and that impressive pizza oven.
Louis worked at Maupintour – a travel agency out of Lawrence – where he did advertising and marketing until 1984, when he decided to quit with support from his wife.
“Phyllis was the one who said to me, ‘If you’re going to be an artist, you need to do it full-time,’” Louis says. “That’s when I quit my corporate job and moved to New York City to attend the Art Students League for a summer.”
He took a risk by quitting his corporate life and hasn’t looked back.
“It’s about finding your passion,” he says. “Being an artist was really what I wanted to be and needed to be.”
The land that now has the barn painted on the side of its shed had once seen fire itself. Before the Copts built the house that’s now their home, the previous home was destroyed in a fire. From the ashes, the Copts built a home where fire is present, but in a way that gives back instead of takes through Louis’ paintings. As for the pizza oven, Louis likes a nice pepperoni pizza with black olives and green peppers.
Learn more about Louis Copt and his paintings at www.louiscopt.com.
Get to know the artist, Louis Copt
1. Did you always paint with oil?
I started painting watercolor landscapes – I did probably 300 watercolors a year. Most of them were Kansas winter landscapes. I transitioned to acrylic and now 90 percent of what I paint is oil on canvas.
2. You and Phyllis have been married for 52 years – that’s amazing. Where did you meet?
We met at Emporia State University, where we attended college. We got married in 1971 and our son, Nathan, now lives in Colorado with his wife, Britta, and our grandson, Campbell.
3. What are your hobbies?
I love Mexican music. I bought this fancy accordion to learn Norteño or Tejano music, but I can’t find anyone to give me lessons. I also love rowing – I’m a member of the Topeka Rowing Association and go to Lake Shawnee twice a week in the warmer months.
4. How do you get pumped up when you paint?
It drives Phyllis crazy, but I like to listen to laid-back electronic dance music. One of my favorite playlists is Purple Disco Machine.
5. Where is your work showcased?
I’ve had work included in the Wichita Art Museum, Kansas State University’s Marianna Kistler Beach Museum of Art, the Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art in St. Joseph and the Spencer Museum of Art at the University of Kansas. Plus, I have a lot of corporate collections, including one for Kansas Farm Bureau’s 75th anniversary.
You can also see my mural artwork in Manhattan (Night Fires in Post Rock Country) and in Lawrence.
I also have work in the Leopold Gallery in Kansas City, the Strecker-Nelson West Gallery in Manhattan and the Reuben Saunders Gallery in Wichita.
6. What is your favorite museum?
I love the Prado Museum in Madrid, Spain. Closer to home, the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City and the Spencer Museum in Lawrence.
7. Who are your inspirations or favorite painters?
I like Caravaggio, Michelangelo and Mark Rothko.