Photo courtesy of Leroy Campbell
“Talk about the story of what we are.”
Self-taught artist Leroy Campbell was born in the Gadsden Green projects in Charleston, South Carolina, in 1956. He was raised in a culture that he describes as an “African village experience.” “I came out of a Gullah Geechee culture. A culture rich with African food, dishes, words, beliefs, ways and traditions,” he explains. “We were a close-knit community. Churches, schools, black-owned businesses, and grocery stores lined the perimeter of our village. A huge playground, swimming pool, and river were minutes nearby. Our food came from the farmers and fishermen. They drove throughout our village during the week selling their produce to us. The lawns were manicured and the entire community remained clean. We were a God-fearing people who loved spending time with each other. We kept our spirits up by dancing, playing games, telling jokes, and speaking positively to each other.” He was surrounded by intergenerational storytellers who would become the inspiration for his art. Growing up in the backdrop of the civil rights movement, Leroy knew his worth and potential. “There were many teachers and members in the community who were determined that we would go into the world and share the best of who we were. Educationally sound, spiritually strong, respectful to our elders, and ready to work hard, and together,” he says.
His father taught him hard work. He was a butcher with a passion for electronics. He would see his father bring home old thrown out radios and toasters to repair. While he wasn’t much of a talker, he made sure his family had what they needed to survive. “I saw my father as a larger than life figure,” he says. “He was dedicated to his church. On weekends, we would go and clean the shrubs outside of the church. That was when we spent most of our time together.” In the neighborhood, Leroy looked to local athletes for inspiration as well. “I still embody their drive and winning spirit,” he says.
It’s Our Time by Leroy Campbell
In the early years of his career, Leroy learned that there were many people who were willing to help him with his art. “When people want to help you, you should let them,” he advises. “They often see things in you that you don’t see, not just in yourself, but see things in your career that you need and want.” After high school, he moved to New York City and worked as a nurse’s aide at a hospital. The workers there encouraged him to pursue his art. As he became acquainted with the art scene in New York City, other artists saw his potential. He recalls Alvin Ailey dancer Donna Wood supporting him and his work early on. “Throughout your career, there is always someone there at the turning point of your career who is willing to move you to the next level,” he says.
There have been many “I made it” moments throughout Leroy Campbell’s career: Max Roach invited Leroy to dinner at his Central Park apartment to discuss designing his next album cover. Cicely Tyson visiting his studio to look at some artwork for a fundraiser comes to mind. Leroy also remembers the time he was interviewed by acclaimed sports journalist Bryant Gumbel with pop and psychedelic artist Peter Max at the Javits Center. “That was big, but that wasn’t it,” he admits. One of the most humbling moments in his career was when he went back home after his career was in “full bloom.” He was talking to the pastor after church when an older woman grabbed the pastor’s shirt and shouted out, “This is Leroy Campbell! He is our artist!” “After all of these years that still stays with me,” he says. “I still feel that right now. When I was recognized by someone who knew from whence I came, that’s when I knew I had made it.”
“I have a house. I’m living well, but there is nothing more important than having a young person connect to their own sense of worth and self.”
Leroy’s greatest achievement is making an impact on the youth. He loves to work with middle school children in Atlanta, Georgia, and the New York City education system. He believes at that age, it is easier to touch their spirits and minds. “People got to me when I was in my middle school years, and that’s why I am the person I am today,” he explains. “When children remember who you are, they are going to make choices based on the things you pour into them.” He wants them to move with confidence and purpose. “I cannot take for granted the life I am living,” he says. “I have a house. I’m living well, but there is nothing more important than having a young person connect to their own sense of worth and self.
Leroy Campbell’s creative process is thoughtful and substantive. His art interprets history and attempts to say something about our present. “I’m living in the present even though I’m drawing everything from the past,” he explains. He starts with a story or a concept. Once he has a concept in his head, he will sketch out that concept. He then creates a character that brings context. He’ll read news articles to find that character. “That silhouette with elongated necks? Now that figure has an environment, a background, a thought process,” he explains. “I focus on not only what the figure believes, but what he wants you to believe.”
In his artwork, there are quotes around the characters, often inspirational. “You see this figure with no eyes and no nose, only a mouth. I want the viewer to think the figure itself is actually saying these things to them,” he explains. Once you’re done looking at his art, a conversation often begins.
“When people look at a painting and it resonates and moves them, they are not only looking for what is conformational but also motivational.”
He notes that his work is not random and that an extensive amount of research and thought goes into his work. He strives for each element to be cohesive—the backdrop, the figure, the choice of colors, etc. “I am always about uplifting—spirit uplifting, higher consciousness, education and empowerment,” he says. “Because that is what I lived. That is what I got. That is what I know. I am documenting our story because without the documentation of our art, of our history and culture, there stands a chance it will be rewritten or reappropriated.”
Leroy sees art as self-reflection and a means to heal. “When people look at a painting and it resonates and moves them, they are not only looking for what is conformational but also motivational,” he explains. “Something that is already self-identified. Artwork is a direct connection to the energy that is our birthright in the universe.”
He goes on to explain further. “We are using elements—paint. We are putting the elements in balance. We are putting in science. We are putting in math. All of those elements are embedded in art. The healing force in all of those elements is in us every day. So how we arrange them, and how we put them together matters. The organic forces, the spirit’s underpinnings are of those elements and energy we all need to survive and thrive.”
Give and Take by Leroy Campbell
After viewing his paintings, Leroy wants viewers to understand that we do not become who we are by ourselves. “I don’t care how old you are, what age you are, you are not a whole person without the input and connection, that multigenerational connection, of all of the people in your life,” he says. “When you are connected and whole, you find your individual walk. Your individual walk is your contribution to that whole network.”
Leroy believes young artists are in an excellent time to get their work seen. He suggests using social media and building out a website to showcase their work. He also suggests they find a mentor and they should ask for what they want. “As an artist, find your voice,” he says. “Find out what you want to say. Tell your story and talk about your own journey.” Reading is also important to Leroy. He suggests reading the stories and bios of other artists as well as the history of art. Apprenticeships and having an entrepreneurial spirit is also key. “Be open to working for an artist who is doing work in the areas you’re interested in, and work at your craft,” he suggests. “Try different mediums, paint, stay busy, treat your art like work. Get up. Just like you get up and work hard for someone else, do the same thing for yourself. Don’t disrespect yourself: eat right, eat healthily, exercise regularly.”
He admits it is not easy, and the people who really care about your well-being won’t be easy on you. “Stay connected to those people who have your best interest at heart. People who fuss at you care about your future,” he says. He believes in the midst of adversity, the ones that persevere can reach success. “After failure, get the lesson quickly, and keep going . . .,” he emphasizes.
“When you are connected and whole, you find your individual walk. Your individual walk is your contribution to that whole network.”
The idea of the artist having to starve to be successful doesn’t sit well with Leroy. “Don’t let yourself starve. It’s not necessary to starve to be motivated, but it’s necessary to find an environment that is conducive to your creativity,” he says. “Try to find a lifestyle where you can be at peace and be comfortable so that the creativity can flourish.” He believes the gifts of being an artist and the gift of creativity come from God. “These are gifts given to you by the ultimate gift-giver,” he continues, “a gift that you can’t keep to yourself if you choose to and a gift you cannot give back. You have to protect it and take care of it. You will find your place and enjoy the opportunity your gift creates, and you will enjoy the success and the benefits that it gives others.”
Right now, Leroy is working on his first “autobiographical children’s book” entitled Super Power. “It is about a boy born with a birth defect on both his hands and left foot who is bullied and teased,” he explains. “He tries to find a way to make the children accept him. They kept teasing him and made him feel isolated.” The young boy starts to learn how to draw and trace. It makes him feel stronger. When he returns to school with his new talent things become different. When the kids start to bully him, he pulls out his sketchbook and starts to draw. The teasing stops. “He realizes that what made him feel good, made others feel good too,” Leroy explains. “So, the moral of the story is that if a child knows their worth, they don’t have to try to be like anyone else or make anyone else like them.” He suggests that bullies wouldn’t exist if they knew their worth.
Leroy is working on more art as well. It will be a series that celebrates the many ways we enjoy each other and life, titled Black Joy.