Shirley Aley Campbell, Painter
1986 cleveland arts prize for Visual Arts
Walking past a newsstand or flipping the channels might lead you to believe that Americans are increasingly comfortable with the sight of the human body. But what we see today is a very selective—and carefully packaged—concept of the ideal body, even in close-ups; maybe especially in close-ups. From the Venus of Willendorf (a limestine figurine dating from 22,000 B.C.E.) to Venus de Milo to the pages of Playboy, artistic depiction of the body keeps morphing toward smoother, slimmer, flawless, hairless, and ultimately unreal bodies.
It is in this cultural context that one comes upon the paintings of Shirley Aley Campbell. Naked or clothed, the subjects of her pictorial meditations are human beings—people who inhabit real bodies: bodies that age, grow flabby or gaunt, decay, and otherwise show what one critic has called “the ravages of time.” The strippers depicted in Campbell’s arresting Burlesque Series (1965–67) are not the airbrushed fantasies proffered by the glossy skin magazines, but women as real as one’s next-door neighbor.
Indeed, writes art historian Elizabeth McClelland in The Art of Shirley Aley Campbell, a 47-page monograph published in 1995 under the imprint of Ohio Artists Now, the “vulnerable flesh is all too real and so is the scar tissue on the spirit.”
Helen Cullinan, writing in the The Plain Dealer, praised Campbell’s “intimate, honest and often searing depiction,” not only of the human face and figure, but of the “human condition.”
“Slim perfection,” says McClelland, “holds little interest for her”; indeed, Campbell tends to work “in a nearly sculptural volume.” These bodies have mass and density, feel the pull of gravity; they inhabit space with an imposing presence, and, in the case of Campbell’s strippers, the “incandescent sadness of flesh that has lived under too many spotlights” (Newsweek). Art News pronounced them “well-composed and skillfully painted mementos of mortality.”
Her obsession with capturing, with paint and canvas or a stick of charcoal, “the way things are,” has taken Shirley Campbell everywhere—from riding along with vice detectives in Los Angeles and San Francisco (for her Derelict Series of the 1970s) to traveling by boat up the Amazon through the jungles of Brazil and Peru to an obscure village called Leticia, where she was drawn to a Jaguar Indian woman who supported herself and her children as a prostitute.
Campbell’s interests have extended to celebrities (actress Margaret Hamilton, chanteuse Hildegarde), politicians (congresswomen Bella Abzug of New York and Mary Rose Oakar of Cleveland), fellow artists (Phyllis Seltzer, David E. Davis), pianist Eunice Podis, race car driver Janet Guthrie, Olympic athlete Stella Walsh, and a series of 13 large canvases of motorcyclists commissioned by car dealer and serious art collector Joe Erdelac.
In the double portrait of two Hell’s Angels, the “jaded old knights of the road are paunchy, their faces are bloated,” writes McClelland, “and they appear locked into a tough, cheerless world circumscribed by the roar, fumes and speed of their Harley Davidsons.”
Subjects are not invited to sit for Campbell; she prefers to observe them in their usual surroundings, performing daily tasks. There, while interviewing them, she fills notebooks with sketches, watching, “exploring,” waiting for what she likes to call “the moment of truth”—that “luminous moment of discovery” that reveals the person. This, she says, is what she tried to teach her many students at the Cooper School of Art, Cuyahoga Community College and Cleveland Institute of Art, where Campbell taught life drawing.
Born in Cleveland in 1925, Campbell is herself a product of the Institute, whose coveted Agnes Gund Scholarship she won in 1947, the year she graduated, going on to study at New York’s Pratt Institute and the Art Students League, followed by private study with Emmy Zweybruck in Estes Park, Colorado. Back in Cleveland, she took first prizes three years in a row (1957–59) in the annual juried May Show held by the Cleveland Museum of Art (CMA). (She was one of three artists featured in the catalogue of 1977’s May Show Retrospective.)
In the years that followed, Campbell’s work, featured in more than 40 one-woman shows and as many group shows, would be added to the collections of nine museums, including CMA, the Butler Institute of American Art, the Kansas City Museum of Art, and the UCLA Collection. In addition, more than 30 private collections—including those of New York-based Avis Rent-A-Car, Alcoa Aluminum in Pittsburgh, and New York congresswoman Bella Abzug—contain work by Shirley Aley Campbell.
For more on the artist, or to see other examples of her work, visit www.shirleyaleycampbell.com/home.htm or
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