Mr. Coppers at The People's Biennial, Collaboration with Harriet Hoover, 2014
Museum of Contemporary Art Detroit, Detroit, MI
The People’s Biennial, an exhibition series conceived of by artist Harrell Fletcher and curator Jens Hoffmann, examines the work of artists and other creative individuals who operate outside the conventional art world.
Harriet Hoover and I were asked by Fletcher and Hoffmann to invite an artist from the Greensboro community to exhibit at the biennial. After researching our community, we invited Franklyn Lewis (aka Mr. Coppers), a local upholstery artist originally from Trinidad and Tobago. Mr. Coppers accepted the invitation and the 3 of us worked together to curate a selection of his upholstery works. The selected works featured Mr. Coppers’ artistry, craft, resourcefulness, and imaginative reclamation of discarded furniture, highlighting Mr. Coppers’ upholstery business as a creative act. The exhibit celebrated his upholstery works, but more importantly, Mr. Coppers himself. The exhibition was accompanied by a short film of Mr. Coppers telling his story as an artist.
Some Words Of Wisdom: Interview With Mr. Coppers
Southern Shade Of A Huge Pin Oak
On any given Saturday while driving around Greensboro, NC, you’ll see a spotless gold, late-nineties Mazda pick up truck, emblazoned with multiple reflective stickers of the Trinidad-Tobago flag, cruising suburban byways and strip-mall parking lots. Poised high in the truck bed, a crisp grey vinyl car seat proudly displays a sign that reads “Mr. Coppers’ Upholstery Business”. If you follow him to his shop on Aycock Street, you’ll see a familial arrangement of antique and refurbished chairs organized on stages made of blankets and palettes under the southern shade of a huge pin oak tree. He changes the furniture installation daily, cycling in vinyl motorcycle seats upholstered in high key colors, alongside stately armchairs with hand painted trim.
Relaxes My Mind
If you talk to Franklyn Lewis, aka Mr. Coppers, it is evident that his upholstery practice is a labor of love. He states “once I got an interested in the trade, it became something I love doing. It relaxes my mind. It’s a form of therapy. It becomes natural and keeps me calm, focused.”
Coppers learned his 25-year trade in his native Trinidad, where he created custom upholstery for furniture, cars and boats. He also earned the nickname ‘Coppers’ on the streets of his hometown, Chagunas, where he would defend himself with headbutts during street fights. Coppers recalls, “Some older boys on the corner said that I had copper in my head, and the name, Copperhead, stuck. They don’t know me by Franklyn, but only Mr. Coppers, that’s it. Then I stopped fighting and used the name for my business. I’m not Coppers the fighter, I’m Coppers the upholsterer.”
Greensboro, North Carolina
After moving his two daughters, Karen and Kherdine, and business to Brooklyn, NY for several years, Coppers visited friends in North Carolina. In 2004, he decided to relocate to the Greensboro area because of its proximity to furniture manufacturing, the High Point Market (one of the largest home furnishing trade shows in the world), and access to “great quality materials, great suppliers, and good people to deal with.” He steadily built a clientele base that would follow him to several different locations, including his current workshop, which is also the home he shares with his daughter Kherdine.
After 8 Years
When he first moved to Greensboro, Coppers earned his culinary arts certificate from a local community college and worked as a cook supervisor for the Guilford County Jail. “I never did culinary before, I was always an upholsterer. But being a new state, where they do a lot of cooking and a lot of eating, I had to adapt. But I came out of the Caribbean, so the culture and food is different... I quickly learned I needed to go to school to understand the culture.” After 8 years of working days in the County Jail, and nights at home doing his upholstery, he saved enough to buy the machinery and equipment needed to reopen his business.
Giving The Customer Part of Yourself
Mr. Coppers has developed and nurtured his business around his family and community. After sending his daughter with special needs, Kherdine, off to school each day, he can devote the entire day to his upholstery practice. Coppers specializes in antique furniture and admires the craftsmanship in older pieces. His process is exacting and labor intensive, and requires ample time. “When you are giving a customer a piece of furniture, give it not because you want money. Give the customer part of yourself. I don’t do same day upholstery work. I like to look it over for a day or two, spend time with it, and see what needs to be done.” To wind down after long days of stapling, sewing, and procuring abandoned furniture for repair, Coppers enjoys riding his bicycle, running, and playing soccer.
You Gotta Put Feet To Thinking
When asked what advice he would give a young entrepreneur, Coppers shares a philosophy that reflects his integrity and daily practice of living. “As an individual, you have to know what you want. Try your best not to be a follower. Try to be a leader and think as leader. Leaders get things done, followers complain. You’ll have good days and bad days. You gotta put feet to thinking, action to thinking. And when you work it, you’ll find bumps. Work them to your advantage. Bring them down and cross over them. If you don’t, they’ll become mountains, and block you from going forward. Often the bumps are just in your head.”
Coppers is currently looking for a larger workspace and showroom in downtown Greensboro. When a neighbor recently mentioned that he was going to get “too big” and have to hire other upholsters, Coppers said not to worry. He’d simply turn down the business. He’s got plenty to keep him busy. To see more of Mr. Coppers’ work, visit www.mrcoppersdesigns.com.