Friday, October 26, 2007
Local artist spotlight: Frank Campagna
You say Deep Ellum's dead. Frank says "it's evolution."
DEEP ELLUM Simply put, if you've been to Deep Ellum, you've seen Frank Campagna's work. His mural (down and left)—as well as his vision and effort—was the nucleus for the swirling mosaic that was the Good Latimer Tunnel project. His hand-painted art-vertisements have coated the walls of the Gypsy Tea Room for years. A veteran painter, music lover and local artist supporter, Frank, in most minds is Deep Ellum art.
In 1978 Frank moved to Dallas, and as he writes about his 'early years', the only place that didn't suck was the Palladium. To get in, Frank made the venue a flyer. The rest is history. Rock/roll+graphic-art+unbriddled cockiness history.
In 2005 Frank opened his own gallery, Kettle Art, along with co-owner Kirk Hopper and a crew (read: 'army') of talented and aggresive local artists. Last month, Kettle helped put on Re*Cov*Er, a muralist competition in Deep Ellum paying tribute to local musicians.
Below Frank talks about Kettle's upcoming shows and what the Good Latimer Tunnel meant to him. He shares his thoughts and hopes for Deep Ellum, his beef with naysaying art critics, The Door moving into the Gypsy Team Room and that one time he whispered threats in Andy Warhol's ear.
He also vents about DART, which, yes, ripped up the Tunnel like a scab, but also flat-out turned down his requests to be a part of the replacement art project for the soon-to-be Deep Ellum station.
PEGASUSNEWS: Standard first question. Did you paint when you were younger, and how did you get started?
Frank Campagna: Yeah.
PEGNEWS: . . .
PEGNEWS: Yeah . . . help me out a little there. How old were you when you started?
FC: Oh, I don't remember. I guess I seriously first started painting when I was twelve or so. I remember being a kid, my mom and dad saying 'it's time for bed,' and then laying in the hallway with my bedroom door open, painting until eleven or twelve at night.
PEGNEWS: Was it always recreational or was it ever serious or for school?
FC: It was more recreational than anything. In high school I used to stay after school and catch the late bus home. Instead of getting out at 3:30 like all the other kids I'd get home at 6:00 or whatever. I got in a lot of trouble for cutting all of my other classes just to hang out in the art room. It was a good excuse.
PEGNEWS: What did or does the Good Latimer Tunnel mean to you?
FC: The Good Latimer Tunnel was a celebration of freedom of expression. It was a rare opportunity that doesn't present itself in a city of this size on a regular basis. Originally, I was asked to paint the tunnel myself, and I told them there's no way you can afford me to paint it, and there's no way I can afford to paint it, so I developed a concept as a one-day knock-off to benefit the Deep Ellum Association, which was brand new at the time. We did that four times over the course of ten years. Lot of fun.
PEGNEWS: What's the status of your potential involvement with the upcoming DART gateway that will replace the Good Latimer Tunnel?
PEGNEWS: So there's been no new developments since May '07, when you were pretty much cut off?
FC: The biggest problem I had with the DART gateway proposal was that it was very vague. All they asked for was qualifications. And, so I gave them a ton of qualifications. I had that piece on the center of the tunnel there for 18 years, another piece on the side of Gypsy Tea Room for almost twenty years. I was like 'hey, I know your sites better than you do,' and not to be cocky about it, but I was deemed not qualified in their eyes. They hid behind the clock of bureaucracy and no one would actually stand up and take responsibility for denying me.
I went to all the federal hearings regarding it. I asked them what they were prepared to do in replacement of the Good Latimer Tunnel and they originally planned to give $50,000 dollars for an art project. I responded with 'yeah, but that's what you do for all your stations, and that tunnel was much more than a station.' By the next meeting they were prepared to give $1.5 million for it. Basically, they were put over a barrel and embarrassed publicly. Which was good.
PEGNEWS: What do you say to people who think or say that Deep Ellum is 'dead' or 'dying'?
FC: I'd say it's evolution. And I love the way Deep Ellum is right now. Deep Ellum is not like it was in the '90s. It's not all crazy, stressed-out with traffic jams of yuppies and gang bangers. The only people that are down here right now are the people who really want to be down here. It's not trendy. I remember when Sambuca was down here. Hoity-toity people would come down here to stare and be amused at kids with blue mohawks. Y'know, it was kind of a trendy, touristy place. It's just different. I like those people because I like their money, but I don't like those people because they're just thrill-seekers, and to them our lifestyle is just peculiar. I say go to the zoo, y'know?
PEGNEWS: It's possible that the media, in covering all the closings that have been going on and not countering with positive things that are going on, is helping give the impression that it's dead.
FC: Yeah. It hit bottom about two years ago, but it's steadily, strongly building back at this point. It's almost impossible to find a building for sale at this point. You'll see in the next year or so all kinds of new developments going on, and restaurants opening. The overall light at the end of the tunnel, per se, would be September of 2009, when DART is supposed to have their construction done, TxDOT is supposed to have their construction done as well. Everything seems to be in-line right now. If we can make it through '09—if anybody down here can make it through September of '09—I'm sure they will have a successful business.
PEGNEWS: You've probably got a lot, a lot, but what is one of your favorite local bands?
FC:, [laughing] Of course Spector 45, because it's my son's band.
PEGNEWS: Yeah. Doesn't count.
FC: Yeah, all right. Frankie grew up exposed to my lifestyle and saw a gazillion bands and understands what I consider to be rock and roll. And he has an appreciation for 50's rock and roll and '70s punk and '60s garage music. His music is an extension of that, which is unfortunately not popular right now, because everyone wants to do '80s synth-pop crap. But that's their problem.
PEGNEWS: Favorite venue?
FC: I'd like to say Darkside. Or Redblood. The new owners cleaned it out, rebuilt it, and it's the best venue in Deep Ellum, as far as I'm concerned. Darkside would be the other best venue in town, and their soundman, Bobcat, is by far the best. Redblood's got an outstanding upcoming schedule.
PEGNEWS: What do you attribute to your success as an artist?
FC: [Laughs] I don't know if I am a success.
PEGNEWS: Don't do the humble artist thing. I'd rate 'success' on how much your work has saturated this area for so long; it's not a superficial thing.
FC: All right. A) my success is attributed to staying alive. We lost a lot of really great people throughout the years, y'know. Keeping high public visibility I think is an important thing, whether you're a musician or an artist. You keep evolving. You keep a high profile, and you will eventually succeed. And just not knowing any better is probably a good attribution. What else am I supposed to do, y'know? I paint pictures. I support local art. I was in a position a couple years ago to open Kettle, while I still had a steady Gypsy check coming through, and brought in a business partner who is also a great lover of art, Kirk Hopper. And, y'know, it was just another extension of the tunnel or painting sidewalks, as we used to do.
When I was a kid, I hate to say it, but, most of the Dallas art scene looked at me as a punk kid and did not assist me in any way. Janet Kutner, I'm talking to you, too, OK? She was the Dallas Morning News art critic for 25 years and never printed my name once. No support whatsoever. Joan Davidow from the Contemporary is another one.
There's a lot of people that I asked for assistance from, that I sent packets that cost me about $20 each along with self-addressed and stamped envelopes. And they would not even bother to reply or send back my materials. It kinda created a bit of resentment and a bit of animosity. And a bit of, like, 'hey, you're crotchety old dust from the past; I'm gonna show you what's up now.' Thank God I have an army of younger artists that back me up on this now. So have fun with your art history. This is art present.
PEGNEWS: What do you think of The Door coming to the Tea Room?
FC: I'm glad to see somebody in there. I've known Russell for forever at this point. And, although it's not my scene— although A, emo is not my thing and B, Christian is not necessarily my thing either—as long as there's kids coming down here, it's the future of kids coming down here and making themselves comfortable. Making themselves at home.
PEGNEWS: When your kids were growing up, did you put a paintbrush in their hands? Did you encourage them to paint?
FC: I was very fortunate, and my children were very fortunate, that I was a self-employed artist. Which meant babies did not spend time in daycare. Babies hung out with dad. In order to keep babies happy, Dad would say 'hey, bring me that brush. Hold this down.' That kind of thing. They were consciously involved since the day they were old enough to sit on a piece of wood as I cut it. No, I never forced them into the art forms they chose. Frankie wanted to be a musician. Amber wants to be a visual artist. And they're both kicking ass at what they do.
Frankie used to tell me it was really cool to walk around Deep Ellum at night, shake a few hands, say hey, see a few people, see some bands. And then, when he was 16 or 17, he told me “now it sucks because everyone down here already knows who I am, and I can't get away with anything because they'll tell you.” That was kind of a beautiful thing. Because it's not just me who raised my kids after a while. Instead it was the entire community.
PEGNEWS: What's coming up next for Kettle?
FC: The next show is part of our Three of a Kind series. We started this back in March with a three-person show. Our next one will be November 10th, with Erica Felicella, who's part of the Kettle crew, along with special guest Lisa Lindholm and Jamie Nourallah, Salim's wife, who does very interesting collage work. The reason it's called Three of a Kind is that three actually different artists would like to put different spotlights on each other.
With Kettle we're going to start toning it down from the large group and theme shows and start putting focus on local, individual artists. We'll probably do four one-person shows a year. For now, we've tied down two large group shows, one being Spring Cleaning, which happens every April or May, and the other will be Holiday Presents Three. Both of those will just be balls-to-the-walls, floor-to-ceiling type of art shows. The biggest point in the evolution of Kettle is we've sifted through most of the North Texas art scene, embracing the people who want to work with us and who have their chops up to par.
PEGNEWS: In your professional opinion, what are the Rice Krispie characters: elves, gnomes or sprites?
FC: I'd have to say elves.
PEGNEWS: If you could bring back any historical figure from the dead, and then fight them to the death, who would you fight?
FC:: Hmm. Good question. Hmm. Ah, well, there's a lot of people alive that I'd love to fight to the death. They should remain nameless. Was never one to back away from calling people on what I perceive to be their shit. As far as dead people go . . . I'd think it'd be fun to go toe-to-toe with Picasso, actually. He had a massive ego, and I'd like to call him out. Not that I'm down on him. Hell, I did call Andy Warhol out.
PEGNEWS: Do what?
FC: I don't remember what year it was. Probably 1979 or 1980. I was a young man, and I'd gone to see the Ramones. That was the second time they were in town. And I ran into them at 7-11. And Joey Ramone said something about Andy Warhol, and I said 'hey, I'm gonna go see him tomorrow at an art opening.' So Joey bought some Pop Rocks and told me to give them to Andy. The next day I went to a Warhol opening at the Meadows Museum at SMU, I guess it was. He was unveiling his sports figure series at the time. There were hundreds of people gathered around, trying to get him to scribble his name on a piece of paper and make it worth more than a piece of paper.
I made my way up to him and said 'hey, Andy, these are from Joey Ramone.' He said cool. I said 'by the way, my name's Frank. I'm an artist, too, and I'm gonna kick butt like no butt's been kicked before and put you back in your place.' I whispered that in his ear. He grabbed me by the arm to the empty end of the gallery, saying 'who are you? who sent you? what are you talking about?' I said 'I'm a cocky little kid like you. I have a future; you're already established.'
The next time I ran into him I did apologize to him, and he gave me a copy of some book he was signing at the time. But, he wouldn't've been a challenge to fist fight. At least Pablo would be fun. He was amazing as well. Much respect.
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