Following Their Passion
| 2017 Q4 | story by Julie Dunlap, photos by Steven Hertzog
-Vincent Van Gogh
Meet three of Lawrence’s own who each have taken individual paths—and leaps of faith—landing firmly in thriving careers as artists.
Emporia, Kansas, native and longtime Lawrence resident Louis Copt graduated from Emporia State University in 1971 with a bachelor’s degree in art with a concentration in painting. He had a lifelong love of the rolling Flint Hills of his childhood and their ever-changing majesty each season.
Painting may have been his first love, but it didn’t pay the bills of a budding adult who would soon marry his college sweetheart and start a family. Copt was able to use his keen eye, passion for design and education to land several different jobs out of college, including working at a frame shop and art gallery, serving as an art director for a printing company, and writing and photographing for The Emporia Gazette.
“Boring stuff,” Copt recalls with a smile. Though he enjoyed photography, the demand to shoot something commercially interesting for the front page of the paper every day countered his desire to create organically inspired art.
At the encouragement of old friends overseas, Copt and his wife, Phyllis, decided to hit the pause button on their careers and pursue an opportunity to live on a commune in the rural valley of Dortmund, Germany, with their then 2-year-old son.
“We sold everything we had and moved,” Copt says, adding, “It was a scary time. Terrorist attacks and bombings; it just wasn’t a safe place to have a family.”
The Copts’ time in Europe lasted less than a year before they hitchhiked from Germany to Lawrence, where Phyllis was offered a teaching job. The offer came just in time, as the family was down to 36 cents.
Copt sold his camera to get an apartment for his family and began searching for a job. A chance opening led him to an interview with Tom Maupin, owner of Maupintour, a Lawrence-based travel agency.
“I walked in to (Maupin’s) office and noticed he had a Maxfield Parrish painting on the wall,” Copt recalls. “I asked him if it was an original Maxfield Parrish, and he was so impressed I recognized it, he offered me the job on the spot.”
Copt worked for Maupintour for seven years, marketing the company and planning and leading travel groups. While the job incorporated his love of travel and desire to see art from all over the world, Copt says, “The business world wasn’t for me.”
In 1985, in his early 30s, Copt took a leap of faith and turned his lifelong passion for creating art into his next—and final—career.
It had been roughly 15 years since his last formal training when the opportunity to study art with The Art Students League took him to New York City that summer. Copt stayed with a friend in a tiny apartment, and his wife and son made a trip to visit him. Phyllis, still teaching school, fully supported his pursuit.
“I couldn’t have done it without her,” Copt smiles.
Copt quickly discovered that summer the talent in the Midwest was every bit as strong as the talent in New York. He returned to Lawrence ready to amass a body of work he could take to area galleries. After roughly seven months, Copt had produced a collection he felt good about and took it to the Donald Batman Gallery, in Kansas City.
Without a job, Copt found he could focus much more strongly on his art. He also found that, because of the jobs he had held, he was well-equipped to market himself, advertise his work and promote his business.
The newfound focus and opportunity soon necessitated a studio outside of the home, so he joined with two other local artists to form an arts co-op they called The 8th Street Artists, housed inside the Poehler Building, in East Lawrence.
“Once I stepped into the path, it all fell into place,” he says, adding, “At some point, you have to step across the threshold of doubt and have faith in yourself.”
Copt now works out of his home-based studio on 10 acres northwest of Lawrence, where he and Phyllis live. Known well around town for his vibrant, moving prairie fire, barn and landscape paintings, Copt also creates sculptures, watercolors, pastels and many commissioned pieces of different media. He is the 2011 Governor’s Award recipient as well as a Phoenix Award winner.
His work can be found all over the world and is at your fingertips at www.LouisCopt.com
“This is where I belong,” Alix Stephan-Carson recalls with a smile.
While the statement could easily and accurately refer to her studio, where she hand-creates pieces for her kids’ clothing line, Crabcakes, she is actually referring to the feeling she had when she first stepped into the textiles studio at the University of Kansas (KU) School of Fine Arts two decades ago.
After earning a Bachelor of Fine Arts in sculpture from KU, Stephan-Carson, a Wilmette, Illinois, native, was offered a fifth year as a teaching assistant. She used that year to dabble in other areas of fine art she had not been able to fit into her studies before, including a textiles class with Professor Mary Anne Jordan that ignited what would one day become her passion.
But her path back to a career in textiles was not a short one.
After some time in South America and her hometown of Chicago, Stephan-Carson moved back to Lawrence, where she started working at Wheatfield’s.
“We all had to wear beige or black baker’s hats,” she recalls of her time mixing and baking in the kitchen at Wheatfield’s. “I decided to buy some fabric from Sarah’s [Downtown Lawrence fabric store] and make my own by hand.”
The upgraded hat caught they eye of her coworkers, and she was soon livening up the standard-issue uniform one hat at a time.
Waking up well before the sun to bake Lawrence’s beloved bread soon wore on Stephan-Carson, though, and she left Wheatfield’s to work at Sunflower Bike Shop’s outdoor shop. There, she rose from retail sales to manager and buyer, making buying trips to Utah and being surrounded by stylish, functional clothing for men and women everyday.
After the birth of her first child (daughter Marlo), Stephan-Carson noticed a distinct lack of fashionable, unique clothing for infants and children, and put her love of textiles and art to work and make her own.
“I decked out onesies and T-shirts,” she says of her earliest creations.
She began embellishing plain articles of clothing into something with a little more flavor, all by hand until she purchased her first sewing machine.
“I asked for a day off of work so I could practice on it,” Stephan-Carson laughs. “My interns sew on it now.”
Within a year of mastering her new sewing machine, Stephan-Carson quit her job at Sunflower and was enjoying a small business creating unique clothing by request.
In 2005, while shopping at the children’s store, Lillibelle, on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, one of her creations caught the eye of the owner.
“I had made Marlo a pink tutu with pom-poms sewn on and an orange and hot pink cowl neck sweatshirt,” she recalls. “The owner stopped me and asked, ‘Where did you get that?’ I told her I had made it myself. She looked at me and said, ‘We want to sell it.’ ”
Lillibelle was eager to start selling, but Stephan-Carson was still gun-shy about creating for the public. She decided to see if she could land an order with the newly opened Blue Dandelion, in Downtown Lawrence, reasoning that a deal with Blue Dandelion would offer her enough validation to take the leap into retail production.
Not only did Blue Dandelion start carrying her clothing, Lauren Alexandra, in Brookside, and several shops in the Chicago area followed Lillibelle’s lead.
As the demand for Crabcakes clothing grew, however, Stephan-Carson’s marriage had come to an end. Now a single mom with two kids and one sewing machine, Stephan-Carson was at a crossroads. She needed help to keep the business going, but she couldn’t afford to hire any employees.
By the work of fate, Stephan-Carson ran into Jordan (her former textiles professor) at Hancock Fabrics, in Lawrence.
“Mary Anne suggested I hire her students to work as unpaid interns,” Stephan-Carson explains. “They get college credit for working for me.”
This chance run-in saved Stephan-Carson’s business, providing her with a thriving career and her interns—and, eventually, paid employees—from KU’s School of Fine Arts a springboard for jobs with designers such as Cynthia Rowley and Martha Stewart, among others.
“My first full-time employee named her first bedding line ‘Marlo,’ ” Stephan-Carson beams.
All of the clothes for her Crabcakes line are made locally using fabric from local retailers in the studio in Stephan-Carson’s home. She hopes to add an adult line soon.
“I get so excited to go to work everyday,” she says. “I love what I do.”
See Alix Stephan-Carson’s designs on Instagram at @crabcakes_clothing.
Following a lifelong love of painting, Brookfield, Missouri, native and local artist Jeff Ridgway chose to pursue that passion at what is now called Truman State University, earning a Bachelor of Arts in drawing in the 1970s. While he dreamed of one day creating art for a living, Ridgway’s professor presented him with an opportunity to develop a publication studio at the university during his sophomore year, an offer he gladly accepted.
The experience he gained in the publication studio, combined with his natural instinct for eye-pleasing design, launched him onto his first career path. Fresh out of Truman State, Ridgway began working as a graphic designer with Johnson County Community College.
Ridgway’s career in what he calls “commercial art” provided much-needed stability as well as training in production and print. He worked in and around Kansas City for many years, enjoying an ever-evolving industry that eventually landed him with an office in the beautiful fifth-floor “Truman Suite,” named after the room President Harry Truman and his wife, Bess, occupied during various stays, at Research Hospital, in Kansas City.
He built a strong reputation for himself within the industry and became highly sought-after, yet all of this success as a graphic artist and art director couldn’t satisfy the artist within him.
“I wasn’t creating,” he says, “I was only reproducing.”
As a single dad working 60 hours per week, Ridgway longed for more family-friendly hours and a job that filled his passion.
“My sister asked, ‘What is it you want to do?’ ” Ridgway recalls. His reply was simple and came naturally: “All I ever wanted to be was an artist.”
With that realization, Ridgway moved his kids to Lawrence in fall of 1988, spending the next five years completing a Bachelor of Fine Arts and Master of Fine Arts in painting.
“I worked my butt off,” Ridgway says of the five years back in school.
During this time, Ridgway met his friend and future business partner, Fred Henderson. Ridgway got Henderson a job painting houses for a company with him after grad school. One afternoon, while balancing precariously atop a ladder to paint an upper-story exterior wall, Ridgway overheard the homeowner discussing the painting company’s contracted rate with the company owner over the phone. The contracted rate was significantly higher than what the company paid its employees.
He quietly finished his work and, afterward, asked Henderson to meet him for a beer. The two decided to part from the painting company and start their own.
Armed with a revived spirit and, later, a graduate degree, Ridgway and Henderson expanded their business, building furniture, sculptures, decks and other “cool things for rich people.”
Ridgway worked with Henderson for many years and sold his own paintings, as well, specializing in large pastorals and portraits. But, after awhile, he explains, “I ran out of things to say.”
He began teaching at the Lawrence Arts Center, instructing painting, portraiture and human anatomy for the artist, an opportunity he credits for saving his life.
“I went into commercial art to buy the clothes and pay the bills. Now, I’m doing what I want,” he says.
Semiretired now at age 61, Ridgway is looking for something new to do.
“I would love to continue to be an artist,” he says. “When God gives you a talent, it is disrespectful not to use it.”
Ridgway’s work is displayed at the Lawrence Arts Center, The Jazzhaus and Blue Dot Hair Salon.