Dale Copeland lives in what she calls “the jungle” — a lush piece of paradise in Puniho on the stunning South Taranaki coast.
From the road, it’s hard to believe you’ve arrived at the right place. But if you brave the overgrown driveway, carefully navigating the happy hens as you go, you won’t regret popping in.
“You found me,” Copeland smiled, standing outside her sizeable art studio.
She’s recently entered her 80s, not that you’d know. During my visit she was constantly on the go, balancing on a stool and brandishing a screwdriver one minute and bending down to retrieve books from a cupboard the next.
“I wrote these,” she said, holding up one of the few remaining copies of Philosophy of the Found. “I did all the bookbinding myself during Covid.”
Bookbinding is just one of Copeland’s many talents.
“I make art out of old junk,” she said. For years locals have offered her their unwanted bits and pieces.
“The people in the district know I collect stuff. Some are so embarrassed about giving stuff to me that they throw it over the fence,” she laughed.
“I often keep it for years and years before it finds its place. It tells me what it can do, will become, or would like to go with.”
Such was her installation made to look like a miniature merry-go-round. One of the characters features the jaw bones of a sheep, a pair of doll shoes, and a dried fish head wearing false teeth that belonged to her mother. “They were a perfect fit,” she said.
In 2012, Copeland was made a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit, for her services to art. “I get twitchy if I’m not making something,” she shared.
‘Maths is beautiful’
Her studio is crammed but beautifully organised. There are all manner of pliers and screwdrivers, carefully stored.
There’s a place for animal skulls, clothes pegs, glass bottles, broken guitars, an entire bat skeleton, cotton thread, and numerous doll heads.
“I don’t like those plastic, cutesy dolls, the smiley ones. Though they have a right to exist,” she said. “I prefer a battered old one.”
She’s exhibited many times. But creating art is far from the only thing she’s excelled at. To say Copeland is a maths whizz is a major understatement.
“Maths is beautiful. Pure mathematics has a beauty which is beyond things, it’s lovely.
“The good bits are kept from students because teachers think it’s too hard for students to handle exponentials or imaginary numbers. But they’re the pretty bits.”
Copeland also has a fondness for Chaos Theory.
“If you look at the ripples on a stream going down and the waves that build up and then crash, or they build up and fold back. And all those patterns are governed by chaos. I can’t explain why it’s so glorious,” she said.
She was dux of her school before scholarships allowed her to head off to university, where she gained a Masters in Mathematics.
“I didn’t know university existed until I was about 15. One of the teachers told me there was a school you could go to when school finished. I was so excited. A school. Another one. Woohoo!”
On leaving university, she worked variously as a computer programmer, a teacher and a nuclear physicist.
She began to concentrate on art when her daughter was born. “I don’t see it as a different part of my head than mathematics. To me, it’s philosophy made solid, because things get together and tell their stories.”
But Copeland isn’t just a celebrated artist and gifted mathematician. She’s added another impressive accomplishment — taekwondo master.
“People tell me I don’t look 80. I take that as a compliment for taekwondo.
“Taekwondo is good because they don’t see you as male, female, tall, fat, whatever. They see you as your rank. So, you’ll get grown men bowing to a 10-year-old girl because she’s superior in rank. And there’s no feeling at all that this is odd or funny,” she said.
“This is the way it is. She’s his senior.”
She took up the sport in her 50s, as a way of keeping fit.
“I work hard at it. I’ll never be as good as the young ones who can jump and kick. I can do damage at floor level, but not up there.”
‘The luckiest person in the whole world’
Once a week she also runs along the beach near her house.
“It’s sheer stubborn perseverance and the realisation that if I stop running and jumping, I’ve stopped for good.”
Mastering three different disciplines has given her quite the jumble of letters after her name.
“The only use I’ve found for any of them is when I’m writing a reference for other people, like for students. If you can sign it and flick some letters after your name, they’re more likely to get a job. And that’s their only use.”
As she begins her 80s, Copeland has no plans to slow down. “I have a lot of stuff. It’ll take at least 20 years to use it. I should live so long.”
She calls herself “the luckiest person in the whole world”. Asked if her clever brain has managed to crack the formula for contentment, she had some sage advice.
“Give up housework. Some things matter and some things don’t,” she said.
“Sure, you do dishes because you need them tomorrow, but you don’t need to polish or clean the windows, or whatever it is that proper people do.
“It’s okay. Enjoy. It’s fine.”