Late Dean’s Portrait Captures Her Love of the Arts

As the image of Nina Coppens gazes away, gathering to celebrate the late dean's student-created portrait are (from left) Coppens' daughter Katie, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, Nina’s husband, Paul Coppens, daughter Lindsay, student artists Julie Howard ’18, Yahira Torres, ‘19 and Adel diPersio ’19.
Gathering to celebrate the student-made portrait of late FAHSS Dean Nina Coppens are Nina’s daughter Katie, Chancellor Jacquie Moloney, Nina’s husband, Paul Coppens, daughter Lindsay, student artists Julie Howard ’18, Yahira Torres, ‘19 and Adel diPersio ’19.

By David Perry

In 2013, Jacquie Moloney asked Nina Coppens if there was anything she could do for her. Coppens’ battle with brain cancer was near its end.

Coppens, 62, said one thing to her longtime friend and colleague. 

“Paint, Jacquie. Paint.”

The chancellor recalled the moment with emotion at the dedication of a painting of Coppens on a wall of the O’Leary Library mezzanine. It is a large work, 16 feet wide by 6 feet tall, made by a trio of art students too young to have known Coppens. But they got to know her during the painting process.

“You got her,” said Moloney to the young women, as more than 50 friends, university officials, faculty and family looked on. “You absolutely captured her.”

It’s been decades since she first visited the library, but Coppens’ daughter Lindsay recalls the O’Leary mezzanine well.

“Oh, this was like home to us,” Lindsay said at the dedication, talking about her and her sister Katie. “I played on these stairs all the time. Dad ran the media center in the library, and his office was right upstairs, so on snow days, we’d come in with him. The building is different, but it still feels familiar.” 

Now, a portrait of her mom hangs on the wall. 

“They showed it to us a couple months ago,” says Lindsay. “It was weird. I didn’t know what to expect. But both my sister and I were struck by how beautiful this is, what a representation of our mom it is.

“They caught her, and she would have loved this.”

Most people didn’t know Coppens for her love of art. She was the dean of College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences. Before that, she chaired and taught in the Psychology Department, and taught nursing before that. 

A native of Sheldon, Ill., Coppens (then Nina Reifel) grew up on a 500-acre farm, amid soy, corn and cattle. There were 25 in her high school graduation class, and she ranked second. An academic scholarship carried her to Northern Illinois University and bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing. She met her husband Paul there as a freshman; they married three years later.

Both accepted jobs at what was then called Lowell State College. (Nina later earned a Ph.D. in psychology at the University of New Hampshire.)

Richard Serna, associate dean of the College of Fine Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, says Coppens forever championed “the college student’s opportunity for experiential learning.”

The work was commissioned by Coppens’ family, as a nod to the painting the dean did in her spare time.

“She got paid $50 the first time she sold one, and she was proud,” says Lindsay. “Not of the money, but that someone put value to her art.”

“After some time passed, we thought of how we wanted to remember her here,” she says, adding that although there was already a scholarship in her mother’s name, the family “also thought it would be a really cool thing to support artists here, at her school. She was a big believer that artists should be compensated for their art, so we thought it would be a nice way for art students to be compensated.

“This is an amazing painting, and it represents something about her that she valued.”

Adel diPersio ’19, Julie Howard ’18 and Yahira Torres ’19 collaborated on the painting. They had worked together before, especially on the mural that now adorns Decatur Way near University Crossing. 

For Coppens’ portrait, diPersio built the canvas. She and Howard did the painting, and Torres, a mother of two who excels at organization, oversaw the effort. To get to know their subject, they spoke to Paul Coppens – Nina’s husband of 41 years – who told them all about her and gave them pictures. They began in June and finished in November.

The painting portrays Coppens looking off the canvas, with four layers of landscapes behind her, each meant to show a place dear to her, from rows of crops on the farm of her youth to the familiar buildings of UML’s South Campus. 

During the dedication, her image seemed to peer down at the podium, and at each speaker.

“This is nice,” Paul Coppens told the crowd. “Really nice. The special thing about Nina was, she was so easy to like.” He paused. 

“Or love.”

She loved UML, he said. She once spoke of her office in Durgin Hall, near the music department.

“I can’t believe they pay me for this job,” she told him. “I get to sit in an office in the afternoon and listen to the most beautiful music.”

She was always proud to tell people at conferences she was from Lowell, he said, adding: “And I’m the luckiest guy in the world. I was married to her.”

The chancellor says she spent a long time thinking about why she was commanded to paint.

She began one day, holding a brush, thinking of Coppens, her hand, she says, “literally shaking.”

She put brush to canvas. It was difficult. Moloney says she realized that it takes time to stare at the rose, to try to capture it in a painting.  

“And this is what artists do every day for us,” said the chancellor. “And for that, I am grateful every day to Nina.”

As the dedication wrapped up, Moloney addressed the trio of students who had created the portrait: “You did catch her, her eyes, her smile. We say things like, ‘Nina Coppens looks down on all of us.’ I looked up there and thought, she truly is now.”