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In the Shadow of an Artist

Early influences: paying homage to my father—artist and mentor.

My brothers, sister and I were raised in the home of a remarkable man — a skilled and independent-minded artist— surrounded by the stuff of art making. So, it’s little wonder then, that at least one of us should end up in the family art business, so to speak. I was that kid. Today I paint full time, am represented by galleries in Western Canada and lead painting and drawing workshops. And my dad was my earliest and most profound influence.

Growing up ‘in the shadow of an artist’ could sound foreboding. In fact, most of the time it was the opposite. The shadow — more like ‘half-light’ really — was a useful place to be. Learning through casual mentoring I got to live with, observe, ponder, question, argue, reject and embrace myriad aspects of artistic thinking and technique as part of normal, every-day life. Not only did it serve to demystify art but was like throwing fuel on the fire and, unlike my siblings, I was completely fascinated with visual art — painting and drawing in particular.

By the time I was five, and beginning to draw my Dad… or HK as I later call him (H. Kenneth Campbell, 1919-1985), was making industrial safety films in Port Arthur, in northwestern Ontario as an independent filmmaker. He left school in grade 10 to help support his family and was completely self-taught in art and filmmaking. He eventually made over 60 films for a wide range of clients from CBC and NFB to Crawley Films and the University of Boston on themes as diverse as mining, forestry, natural history, wildlife documentaries, motor boating and historic Inuit hunting practices.

In his previous work life, HK had been a newspaper reporter, press photographer, radio announcer, wildlife interpreter to name a few and claims he also sold Fuller Brushes for a time. But from an early age he always drew and painted… something he did up to his final days. Clearly, these were passions of his that I inherited. His Dad was of Scottish descent and I am sure some of their rumored thrift and single-mindedness is evident in me and my siblings. HK’s Mom was his constant supporter and he said when she died, he lost his biggest fan. Certainly HK and my Mom were mine!

As kids, we are so myopic about their parents. I know I was. To me it seemed, there wasn’t much HK couldn’t do when it came to art. Drawing, painting, photography, carving, clay sculpting, pottery, jewelry, mosaic, copper, welded-steel sculpture and more. And later I also recognized his interests and abilities led him into glass blowing, furniture design, industrial design, architectural design and the list goes on.

His secret for success wasn’t really a secret. When he was curious, he simply pursued that thing until he mastered it. Trips to the library, meetings with experts in the field, reading and lots of practice were his schooling. I remember him encouraging us all to “get a book and look it up” whenever we came to him with questions. HK was curious, self-confident and passionate about his interests. His friends and acquaintances were experts in their fields, naturalists, artists and thinkers. He didn’t have much time for fools — a reality that came home to me on several occasions when my own performance was ‘lacking’. HK demanded intellectual curiosity and a good work ethic of himself and others.

As the samples on this page attest, he happily explored realism and abstraction in his painting. At one point in his career he told me he painted over 200 works in one year, a feat my artist friends still find amazing. His commitment to his passion was profound.

At home he invoked the ‘chess policy’ as an exercise to keep us sharp. He insisted we play one game of chess at lunch before we could go back to school. This focused our minds he said. For us kids, we thought it was a no-win scenario most of the time. It was bittersweet really. We complained we were missing playing baseball or something, all the while secretly proud to be the one getting Dad’s attention.

I still remember my older brother’s ‘Kobayashi Maru’ maneuver. He was the chosen chess partner for many months. One day, they sat at the chess table (yes, HK had actually designed and built a ceramic tile chess table specifically for these occasions), selected sides, set up the board and Dad made the first move… pawn to king’s 5.

What came next was just short of genius. My brother looked at the board then said in a practiced voice… “Dad, I can see how in 14 moves you will have me check-mated, so I concede. See ya later!” And with that was out the door. HK was doubled over for several minutes in laughter with tears running down his cheeks, in one of his characteristically long, wrinkled-face, silent laughs that prevented him from saying a word to keep my brother at the game. Unfortunately, that only worked once!

I mention the chess policy to illustrate a point. Not only did he design and build the chess table, but he designed and made the chess pieces — of red and black industrial grade plastic turned on a lathe and finished with hand-carving, and he researched all of this, conferring with local experts and many trips to the library. He also sought out the history and techniques of chess playing and passed this onto us (so he would have someone to play with mostly). It reminds me of an architect who designed the house, then the landscaping, then the furniture, then the wall treatments, then the place settings… you get the picture. HK was very much of that mindset. And he did it in all of his art.

They say, in time we become our fathers! A disquieting prospect for a young man, perhaps, but happily at this point, I see some of my father in me. A love for art, naturally. The passion for independent study is another quality I will be eternally grateful for. He also fostered in me a love of words and a lexicon of ways of thinking about problems in art, philosophy and the world at large. He demonstrated a sound work ethic and skills in time management while being careful to keep his passion for art nourished and nourishing. I think this has stuck with me too.

We exchanged ideas about lots of stuff. Although I don’t remember discussing the topic of ‘talent’ per se, I believe we would agreed. ‘Talent’ is a problematic word. A better one is ‘skill’. Skills can be taught and learned by people eager to posses them. Skills must be practiced to develop, practiced to be retained and practiced even more to grow. This takes knowledge, passion and a sound work ethic.

Finally, HK encouraged my interest in drawing. Shape, proportion, measuring by eye, and sensitive line work were introduced early. But it was the addition of value… light and dark… that hooked me. Classical drawers begin with a simple palette of 5 or 9 tones (from light to dark) to shade and shape their drawings. I have found, that it is in the middle tones, the half-light, the partial shadows… where so much interesting stuff is revealed.

Painters wield light and shadow to forge narratives. It is the shadows that give volume and solidity to objects; that suggest depth and distance that hold the promise to be revealed in time by light or keep obfuscated indefinitely. In notan we learn the principle of harmony between light and shadow. There cannot be one without the other. To be in a shadow then, is to be close to the source of the light.


Images: All of these images are by HK Campbell and are held in private collections in Canada. Thanks to my family for allowing these images to appear here. (top to bottom) Black Spruce Bog (theme), 48 X 24, oil on Masonite ‘Little Cree’, 24 X 30, oil on Masonite Hills, Trees, Rocks & Lake (theme), 40 X 30, oil on Masonite Country Church (theme), 18 X 24, oil on Masonite Boats and Nets (theme), 24 X 20, oil on Masonite Guitar Player (theme), 24 X 20, oil on Masonite Pike Polling (theme), 30 X 24, oil on Masonite

For more information about the fine art of Ken Campbell:


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