Name Recognition: Eleanor Coppola's Time in Hotels Inspires Her Latest Work

"Coppola." In cinema, the name inspires a million associations — everything from Apocalypse Now and a fat Marlon Brando to Lost in Translation and an existential Bill Murray. Through Francis Ford Coppola and Sofia Coppola receive the most attention in the family, Eleanor Coppola, Francis' wife and Sofia's mom, is also a formidable name — as a writer, as a documentarian, and as a visual artist. Eleanor Coppola's newest art exhibit, "Scrolls," is on view at Gallery Paule Anglim through May 4. Here, Eleanor Coppola reveals the inspiration behind her new exhibit, why Francis once had a very mixed view of her artistic ambitions, and how her emphasis on visual art helped inspire Sofia Coppola's Academy Award for Lost in Translation.

SF Weekly: Your exhibit "Scrolls" features long scrolls with photos that show poetic outdoor scenes of hills, trees, leaves, and weather. What inspired this project?

Eleanor Coppola: All the years of living on film locations with hotel art around caused me to think a lot about art that could be portable, that I could take with me and put up easily. I tried numerous attempts at scrolls over the past several years. I approached the project fairly traditionally in the beginning, but little by little the work became more and more minimal and less Asian until they finally resolved into what is now in the gallery. From the start I wanted to use a photograph instead of an ink or watercolor image. This presented all sorts of challenges, because printing on the type of thin rice paper used in scrolls did not have the color vibrancy that I wanted. There was a lot of trial and error. The adventure of doing something I see in my mind's eye, but don't know how to achieve, is part of the process that draws me forward.

Soboru #5, from Eleanor Coppolla's series of scrolls.
Soboru #5, from Eleanor Coppolla's series of scrolls.

People who know your life will guess or assume that the photos are from your family's winery in Napa Valley. Do you welcome that assumption?

I'd like the viewer to see into the images whatever they evoke for them. Most people are aware that I live in the Napa Valley but you'd be surprised how many people seem to think we live in Hollywood. The scroll images are all taken in my familiar surroundings, as close as my concrete terrace after a rain and as far as a drive to the south end of the Napa Valley where cows graze.

Instead of lying flat on the gallery's walls, the scrolls are attached so that they loom over the walls — almost like they're floating.

I wanted the scrolls to float slightly off the wall, casting a shadow, giving it a presence different from traditional scrolls. ... I wanted to remind the viewer that it is not an Asian scroll and not to have those expectations.

In your book Notes on a Life, you write about a big art event at your house in San Francisco in 1975, where participants peeled a potato after reading a quote from Joseph Beuys that said, "Peeling a potato can be a work of art if it's a conscious act." The participants had to put their potato in pots labeled "Art" and "Not Art." Would you do this sort of event today or was that an example of youthful exuberance?

That was particular to the early '70's when I was involved in "conceptual art. " I was asking the viewers to form their own concept in their mind, determine if they were making art, or not.

You say that Francis wasn't that happy with the event, and that he thought you could do your art "at home in your spare time." That changed, of course. Can you talk about that transition from "spare time" to what it became?

I would say my art has always taken second place to my family's many endeavors. This reflects the times and values of the era I grew up in. I slowly transitioned to making more time for myself and my creative work.

Your dad went to art school in France. You studied art in college. Art is in your blood, right?

My father did study in France. He went to the [San Francisco Art Institute]. I have always been a fond supporter of that great school. My father worked at home. Our house always smelled of oil paint and turpentine. I loved it.

You've collaborated a lot with Lynn Hershman Leeson. You met her when you were both young mothers in Napa. Can you talk about why this has been such an important collaboration for you?

We met when our children were in the same nursery school in San Francisco. I had just moved north from L.A. and didn't know anyone. I was desperate to speak to someone about the non-traditional art that interested me. Our conversations and projects together were provocative and very inspiring for me. When I went to the Philippines with the family while Francis made Apocalypse Now, I shot Hearts of Darkness and began to go down a different path. Lynn remains an inspiring artist and treasured friend in my life.

Many people know your film work, like Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker's Apocalypse, which documents the ups and downs of Apocalypse Now. They may not be that familiar with your art work. Do you think of yourself as a visual artist first and foremost?

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