by Meredith Dault
27 July 2011
Though she is about to go into the fourth year of her PhD in Art History, there was a time when Catherine Copp didn’t think graduate work was even an option.
Beginning her undergraduate degree as a mature student after she found herself unemployed, Copp says she had no idea of her academic potential. “I told myself that I should go get a university degree,” she says, explaining that while she had attended the Ontario College of Art and then worked in animation, she felt like she was just not getting ahead career-wise. She had no idea where that decision would take her.
Enrolling in the art history program at Carleton University in her early forties, she was immediately enthralled. “I was particularly affected by the history classes,” she explains warmly, “and the realization that history is something that you can do. I had always thought of it as a bunch of facts.” She says the experience opened her eyes to the possibility of pursuing a future in history. “As historians we interpret the evidence, and we create knowledge. That was an exciting thing for me to grasp. I learned how to articulate my visual understanding. I had never been able to do that before.”
When Copp was nearing the end of her first undergraduate term, one professor took her aside and urged her to keep her marks up, apply for scholarships and consider graduate work. “She said, you have potential,” she recalls. “I was shocked as, apart from being an avid reader, I had not developed my intellect.” After her Bachelor’s degree, Copp won a Canada Graduate Scholarship and an Ontario Graduate Scholarship, continuing on to earn a Master’s degree in Art History at Carleton.
Mid-way through that degree, Copp still had no intention of enrolling in a doctoral program. “But, I really enjoyed a Research Assistantship curating an exhibition at Carleton’s Art Gallery, and knew that a PhD would help me with curatorial work. I didn’t know if I was ‘PhD material’,” she says with a laugh, “but decided to give it a try”. After being accepted at Queen’s (supervisor Dr. David McTavish) and winning a SSHRC Doctoral Fellowship, Copp says her path became clearer. “I thought to myself, I guess I am meant to do this!”
At the age of 50, Copp has just returned from a six-month journey through Europe as part of her doctoral field work. Her dissertation is on Annibale Carracci, an Italian Baroque painter from Bologna. “In his younger days he made a study trip to Venice,” Copp explains, “and I am looking at what he saw in Venice and how he assimilated that into his own unique style. That is what dictated my trip.”
Copp came to her fascination with Carracci after completing a class assignment in the first year of her PhD. “I had to write a catalogue entry for a small work by this artist that had just been rediscovered - it’s in the National Gallery, London. So I started reading the triple biography of the Carracci artists and I just fell in love with them. They seemed like fun people who loved painting and wanted to make a difference in art. I decided I really wanted to study them - but especially Annibale, because he was the most progressive of the three.”
Copp says receiving a Bader Fellowship helped fund her PhD research trip. “It felt like winning the lottery!” she says sheepishly. With an itinerary built around the location of the art works she wanted to see, Copp started her journey in London, England at the British Museum. She stopped in Paris to see more works by Carracci at the Louvre, travelling on to Berlin, Dresden and Vienna. Next she arrived in Italy where she spent four and a half months, mainly splitting her time between Venice, Bologna and Rome.
She says for the most part people were incredibly helpful wherever she went, describing the experience in Bologna of joining a group of Italian tourists to visit the Palazzo Magnani,painted with Carracci frescoes. “The tour guide briefly explained to everyone, in Italian, who I was and that I was studying the Carracci...and everyone was smiling at me, and some said ‘thank you’, we really appreciate it! I was amazed that they were thanking me, but they were from Bologna and they were grateful that I was studying an artist from their city!”
Copp says she will spend the next year writing up her research, and then she’ll see what the future has in-store, whether it’s curatorial work or writing a book. What she knows for sure is that she’s grateful she made the decision to go back to school. “I wish I had done it when I was younger,” she says, “but I really didn’t know what my potential was. Going to university is about finding out what you can do. I never thought I had it in me, but you just don’t know until you try!”