A chat with Uihlein Fellow of Studio Art Debbie Kupinsky

Max Randolph

Uihlein Fellow of Studio Art Debbie Kupinsky found a two-year job teaching art and art appreciation at a small college not far from Greenwood in the Mississippi Delta, and there found significant experience from which to inspire her art and inform her understanding of sensitive issues, particular to different regions of America.

Kupinsky is currently in her second year of teaching at Lawrence. She received a B.A. in English from Syracuse University, her B.F.A. from Kansas City Art Institute and her M.F.A. from Louisiana State University.

She teaches introduction to studio art and is specifically interested in ceramics. Her work was recently featured in an exhibition titled “Eden?” in the Leech Gallery of the Wriston Art Center.

Kupinsky and her husband taught at several colleges and universities in southern California for five years before Kupinsky followed her husband to the Mississippi Delta after he received a job offer at a university.

She describes their initial reaction as apprehension, followed by excitement to pick up and move from southern California to Greenwood in Leflore County, Mississippi.

The median household income in the county is $22,020 as reported by the U.S. Census Bureau. The city of Itta Bena has a medium income $20,968. The U.S. poverty level set in 2011 was $22,350.

Kupinsky said, “At my husband’s university where I had my studio, there was very little support by the state of Mississippi for the department and college, so the place was really falling apart, and there was a lack of basic materials and access to faculty development for learning new technologies. I’m thankful that Lawrence works so efficiently and that the college is really supportive of teaching.”

Kupinsky identifies herself as a populist, and it’s evident through the interview that she draws from her work experience in both the Deep South and in southern California to inspire both her teaching and her artwork.

“There are things I like about the south, particularly its layers,” she shared. The layers that she sees in the landscape of the south, she explained, often reflect the complex and still present racial tensions that are still in the south. “Manners,” she told me, “are the oil that keep the cogs of southern society running smoothly.” Polite speech is the first layer of the complexities of southern culture. 

Her recollection of the experience hints her own bafflement of the problems and tension in this overlooked region of the U.S.

“In the south, people care about the past; they care about the history, whether they acknowledge it or not, and I have incorporated that into my work.” Pausing momentarily to ruminate on a piece of art sitting off in the corner, Kumpinsky continued to draw contrast to that statement: “The way that things are hidden or revealed, both here [in Wisconsin] or in California, someone tears down a building, then paves it over to build something new. Life just moves on and that’s okay.”

When I gave her a look to acknowledge her observation, she continued to make another point. She is closer to the edge of her chair this time, still with hands held together, resting on her lap. “

You know this lake here?” she raises her eyebrows and her pitch of voice, “Lake Butte de Morts means ‘hill of [the] dead.’ There was a Native American Burial Ground there and no one thinks about that anymore. In the South the past is still present because there is still living memory of segregation… [and] the lasting tension is corrosive to the nature of interpersonal relationships.”

She points to a large sphere turned on its flat side. It’s painted black and decked with ceramic flowers. I recognized this piece from “Eden?” and she tells me the concept behind the piece is to show that beauty is flawed and she draws parallel to the landscape of Mississippi she says inspires her work. She explains that the bucolic Mississippi landscape is also flawed with its living past.

“Nothing can be perfect in the world because when you look closer, you’ll find the worm.”

Up on her wall, she has several of her ceramic pieces. One features the head of a fox on a child’s body with an open cavity in its chest.

“You know… because I had the baby, I knew nothing can be all horrible.”

She was born here in Wisconsin. I asked her what worm is here in Wisconsin, and she recounted a recent trip to Taliesin, Frank Lloyd Wright’s house outside of Madison. During the three-hour trip down, for every “Stand with Walker sign,” a sign to with the slogan “recall Walker” would follow. “Neighbors draw lines between one another, over issues that concessions will need be made for.”

Kupinsky talked about her experience working in places very different from Appleton, alongside of many minority groups, and I asked her what she thinks of the students here.

She explained that Appleton has been a pleasant place to work and live and that she enjoys the students here and says that “[Lawrentians] are well read and have well-formed opinions.”

I asked her about her life outside of the classroom in Mississippi: “I cooked a lot, made a lot of artwork. That was incredibly helpful to my studio practice, and this was largely in part due to the fact that there was nothing to do outside of the studio. [There was] class and chores around the house and my work.”

She talks with distaste of cat fishing and duck hunting, which are the sports of the south, neither of which she participated in while living in rural Mississippi. “Appleton has much more to offer, but I’m also significantly busier, which is great, but I still don’t watch movies.”