CASPER, Wyo. | Color fills the gallery, where faces peer from portraits covering the walls almost from top to bottom. Sculptures crowd the center of the space at the Nicolaysen Art Museum. Figures wrapped in twine suspend from the ceiling, while characters made of bowling pins perch along a ledge at the top of the gallery walls.
In the past year, Casper artist Jim Kopp created most of the hundreds of artworks — sculptures, assemblages and paintings — that fill the Ptasynski Gallery at the museum. His show, "Primordial Charms," opened last month and is on display through Jan. 13.
From an intuitive space in his mind, Kopp constantly creates art in his unique style, which those who have seen can recognize on sight.
Kopp's mother died in 1999, the same year he saw an exhibit at High Museum of Atlanta by Howard Finster, a well-known folk artist on the East Coast. Inspired by her death and Finster's work, Kopp started painting on wood and canvas, often including various found objects in his art, just a few of which include small vintage toys, bear-shaped honey bottles and paint can lids.
Teaching himself didn't go as quickly as formally studying art. But it's been a way to hone his own creative voice, he said. Self-taught art tends to be more about emotion than the technical side, and artists tend to be prolific and often freely express progressive or even absurd ideas, Kopp said.
There's a tenacity that comes with being self-driven, he added.
"They're more concerned about creativity than technical skill," Kopp said of self-taught artists. "And I like the rawness of it."
It's not fine detail or realism that Kopp strives for, rather a deliberately primitive, intuitive style.
"Primordial Charms" features a vast array of painting and drawings along with sculptures and assemblages "that were conjured from an intuitive place in my mind as if they were charms — objects that represent the unknown powers that cross the line from another world to ours," according to his artist statement. "Bits and pieces of magic or unknown worlds from the past, present and future are revealed through the artwork much like charms, which have a fantastical or attractive appeal."
A main goal of his was to use diverse mediums and branch out from paintings into three-dimensional art. Many of the sculptures represent objects called charms or fetishes, used around the world for good fortune. The show includes more than two dozen bowling pins painted as characters as well as figures of wood wrapped in twine and suspended from the ceiling.
Several three-dimensional assemblages hanging in the gallery are ghostly pieces inspired by a blend of rural fables of Appalachia, including malevolent spirits called haints.
"So it's kind of like a bridge between reality, our world, and another world," Kopp said.
Kopp created the sculptures with materials he found or that showed up on his porch, he said. Friends have left him barn wood from Montana, the bowling pins used for target practice and wood from hiking trails in the Bighorn Mountains.
Sculpting involves more physical labor, he said. For one set of sculptures, he hammered into 2x8-inch wood pieces with a chisel to create characters with recessed features made to look even more primordial, he said.
The paintings in the show depict "places and interactions far away from our daily lives," according to the statement.
The themes behind each artwork range from daily life to William Blake's poetry to the dada art movement.
Many of Kopp's ideas for sculptures arose from the materials themselves, like a large piece of wood and piano parts that showed up at his house and that became a sculpture called "Centipede God." Piano hammers form the ends of the creature's appendages. Kopp had originally planned the bowling pin figures to surround it like worshipers, but ended placing them along the top of the gallery walls.
With artwork coming from an intuitive mindset, occasionally even he's not sure until later where his ideas came.
One assemblage depicts a figure skater reminiscent of monsters from children's book "Where the Wild Things Are," created from an array of materials including cardboard, a fast-food beverage holder and even a painting of ice skaters he'd previously painted that look like they could be from a Claymation film. It was only months later when he looked back and realized he'd created it during the Winter Olympics after hearing people on TV talk about Tonya Harding.
Kopp works as a full-time artist in Casper and sells his art in the community as well as across the U.S., Canada, Europe and as far as Australia.
A few of his paintings even appeared on an episode of NBC's "Chicago P.D." A handful of his pieces recently were featured in the current issue of WRPD Magazine, a fashion, art and photography magazine in Rome.
The set of Kopp's "Matriarchs and Warrior Queens" was inspired by the recent women's marches and the #MeToo movement, he said. But he doesn't consider himself a political artist, though his daily experiences tend to come to the fore in his work.
For instance, one of his pieces titled "Super Mom" is based on young mothers he's seen pushing strollers or carefully crossing streets with toddlers. The piece depicts a woman under a carousel symbolizing naivety as below her figures and creatures represent the evil in the world, which she fights to protect her children.
"As they grow older and become more independent, things start to darken up a little bit," Kopp said. "It's not so naive anymore."
Playful humor and irony can be found throughout the show as well.
One sculpture of a carved, ghostly feline-like face atop a small, black wooden block is titled "Monument to a Cryogeniced Apparition."
"So it's like a ghost that's dead," he said. "But it's like they're trying to save this ghost that's dead."
Since his trip to Georgia where he discovered Finster, whom he had a chance to meet while the artist was alive, Kopp has been inspired by many other self-taught artists from all over the world.
Self-taught art is less common in Wyoming, though it enjoys a tradition and history in other regions including the South and the Eastern U.S. Prominent self-taught artists include R.A. Miller, whose art is housed in the Smithsonian. Kopp also owns an original Miller painting that attendees of his presentation will see. One of Kopp's all-time favorite artists is William Hawkins, who gained popularity as an artist in his 80s with huge paintings on Masonite in a bold, audacious style that sell for up to $100,000 each. Finster, Kopp's original inspiration, created album art for bands including R.E.M. and Talking Heads.
Kopp grew up in Pennsylvania and Florida and showed an early talent for drawing. It was only after he moved to Casper that he discovered self-taught art and his passion for visual art. Before that he was a musician, and he continues to plays drums and jazz vibraphone in Casper.
It's almost an overload when walking into Kopp's show, Nicolaysen curator of education Zhanna Gallegos said. The clutter is just as it should be for a folk artist, she added. He brings his own perspective on life and personality that flows though his art without adhering to rules of traditional art, she said.
"It's alive, and I think that's what his art is," Gallegos said. "It's a living art. It's a little bit eclectic and it's a lot of color and it's a lot of different material, and it's very tactile. It's very sensory."
The feast for the eyes is just the first impression, though.
"Then you start actually looking at the characters and start trying to figure out the story behind this," she said. "I think you can be there for hours and hours."
She describes his art as whimsical but also ironic, and joyful while also containing sadness and even elements of the sinister. What some may see as simple, abstracted forms contain layers of emotional and symbolic complexity, Gallegos said.
Kopp's playful juxtapositions include a drawing with an angel pushing a lawnmower across a backdrop of one of Kopp's other worlds.
"It's just hilarious and makes you smile," Gallegos said "And it shows you a little bit different perspective on everyday life."