About Emma Coppens (1849–1930)
Emma Coppens ran for the Grand Rapids Board of Education on two occasions. In 1889 she lost in the Fourth Ward to Hugo Schneider by seventy-one votes, and in 1891 she lost in the Fourth Ward to Fred S. Clark by 113 votes. But despite these defeats, Coppens left her mark as an artist, teacher, and community organizer in Grand Rapids.
Mrs. E. M. Coppens advertisement, R. L. Polk and Co.’s Grand Rapids City Directory, 1889
Emma Coppens was born on March 10, 1849, in St, Lawrence County, New York. In 1861 she moved to Grand Rapids, Michigan, with her family. At fifteen she began teaching at Union High School until 1879, when she enrolled at the Art Student’s League of New York. After studying there for three years, Coppens returned to Grand Rapids, opened a studio, and promoted her newly developed artistic skills. An 1889 advertisement in the Grand Rapids City Directory lists her services as provider of made-to-order work “in oil, crayon and watercolor” and as a teacher of drawing and painting. She also specialized in pastel portraits and “china decorating and portraits on porcelain.” But Coppens’s success as an artist was not limited to Grand Rapids. In 1891 she showed two paintings at the Detroit Museum of Art’s first ever Annual Exhibition of American Art.
Coppens helped found the first Grand Rapids Art Association in 1890, where she served multiple terms as secretary and treasurer. And in 1902 she and other local artists organized an arts and crafts society.
Although reform work wasn’t her first priority, Coppens found applications for her artistic passion in the continuing conversation around early childhood education reform. At a meeting of the Froebel Club (named after Friedrich Froebel, the inventor of Kindergarten), Coppens read a paper entitled “Art in Relation to Children,” in which she presented “art training as a means of expression for the child” and argued that “clay modeling, drawing, painting and later woodworking and other forms of manual training should be given as a medium for self expression.”