It is often said that great art is the result of suffering, but Leroy Campbell’s stellar work comes from striving. He has overcome disabilities, family drama and doubt to create a magnificent portfolio of work.
His paintings are owned by the likes of Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Joyner, Terry McMillan and the estate of Maya Angelou. He has just published his first coffee table book, My Authentic Self, and starting Thursday, his work will headline a group show at the Sol Studio in Harlem. Other artists participating in the show include Sara Bunn, Najee Dorsey, Maurice Evans, April Harrison, Charly Palmer and Phyllis Stephens.
Campbell’s mother took thalidomide, a drug given to women in the ’50s to prevent morning sickness that also was later found to cause birth defects in their children. As a result, Campbell’s fingers and toes did not reach their full size. He was born in Charleston, S.C., and grew up there and in New York City.
A comic book fanatic as a kid, Campbell became a self-taught artist. He was inspired by the works of the legendary painters Romare Bearden and Jacob Lawrence. He was moved by their depictions of African-American life, and he began using his background in Gullah and Geechee culture, where African language and traditions were preserved despite the brutalities of slavery. (The term “Gullah” is generally used in North and South Carolina, while “Geechee” is preferred in Georgia and Florida.) Campbell has made that subject and those influences a cornerstone of his work. “You have to embrace your culture to find your path,” he tells The Root.
One of the most striking pictures in Campbell’s book is of a big family meal. The grandparents are in the forefront of the painting, seated at a big table full of food and excitement. Titled Table Talk, the painting is Campbell’s tribute to the value and necessity of extended families. He is candid about the domestic violence that occurred in his own upbringing, but he credits the love and validation he found both in his extended family and in his community for keeping him on the right path. The painting is striking in its use of color, from the garments and hair to the food on the table. Another technique Campbell favors is the use of text, and on the table cloth there’s a line: “Some people are so poor, all they have is money.”
Campbell was initially embarrassed by his family’s attachment to Gullah culture, but he came to appreciate his mother’s quilt-making, a key tie to those traditions. His Royalty and Pride paintings celebrate the vivid color schemes of Gullah/Geechee work. One piece, Holy Matrimony, is of a bride and groom; the other, Smoked Neckbone III, is of a father, son and grandson. Each vividly depicts the background. The wedding painting features terraces of flowers glowing in celebration of the nuptials. The family picture shows the backdrop of a farmhouse and even a cemetery in the distance, suggesting deep roots on the land.
His Words of Wisdom painting shows a woman regaling six youths with stories, and for Campbell, this is a tribute to the elders from whom he learned much about life. Their stories imbued him with savvy and a sense of purpose. The painting uses Campbell’s trademark vivid colors and has newspaper clippings as a backdrop, a technique that was inspired by Bearden. It has the impact of reminding the viewer that our stories are more humane and important than the official versions.
Campbell regards his work as activism and a means of empowerment. He says he advocates unity and diversity and he hopes to inspire.