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An Interview with Cornelio Campos

/ November 26, 2019

Over several weeks of a very hot August, I had the pleasure of working with the artist Cornelio Campos as he painted his new mural in downtown Durham to celebrate Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and Mexican Modernism. He was commissioned by the Museum, the City of Durham, and Spectra Venue Management to paint one of the loading dock doors on the Durham Convention Center. The piece would be inspired by the work of Diego Rivera and would accompany a mural honoring Frida Kahlo painted by Cecilia Lueza.

We worked closely through the many meetings it took to bring this project to fruition. It was exciting to be finally onsite with him. As we worked, we talked about his life, art, and family. I called him recently to recall those conversations.

Angela Lombardi: I’ve wondered how you started in art; what were your earliest inspirations?

Cornelio Campos: When I was a kid, our textbooks were full of well-known Mexican artists: Rivera, Kahlo, Orozco, Siqueiros, Posada. The most influential artist in my life has always been José Clemente Orozco.

One summer when I was 12 or 13, friends of my family invited me to stay with them in Guadalajara and go to an art camp, enrolling me into the only official art class I ever took. It was a basic drawing class that taught me how to use line, geometry, and composition. But even better than the class was the city. The family worked, so they had to drop me off early, and I got to wander the city and see all the different parts—it is a very artistic city.

I saw many of Orozco’s works in public buildings and got very excited about the idea of public murals. Every day for two months I would go to the Hospicio Cabañas to see the frescoes. You could tell where he stopped working every day from the way the colors and the marks changed. Some sections were big and others, well, you could tell he had a shorter day! I thought to myself: “If this guy who was half-blind with one hand could do this, what could I do?!” So that summer formed the foundation of the art that I am still doing right now.

AL: So you learned more by observation and trying things than through formal study. Are other members of your family artistic?

CC: Yes! I am the third of nine children, and we are all artistic. We all wondered where we got our artistic talents. We thought it might be our dad—he was a handyman. But last year, my mom was able to attend an art workshop for the first time. They made handbags, and we were in shock! She used paint to embellish it with beautiful designs! She had never painted, that we knew of, but now we all know where the art comes from!

AL: I’m glad she finally found the time to make her own art and that the mystery was solved in such a beautiful way! Were you making art when you first moved to the States?

CC: Not right away. I moved to Durham in the early ’90s, and I had several jobs in construction and landscaping. The city was new to me, so I didn’t remember the street we had been working on—I didn’t recognize it until the mural was finished—I planted those trees on Chapel Hill Street in front of the mural. Those trees I planted in the cold that day have now grown enough to give me shade as I do the work I really love and am so happy to be doing.

AL: Full circle. That is incredible.

CC: What was so special was that you asked me to freely paint in my own style, not make a copy of a Diego Rivera. Usually when I’ve gotten commissions, I’ve had to change my ideas to satisfy the client, but this was a real opportunity to represent my culture in my own style. A lot of what is in the mural came from the textbooks I had in my childhood—images I’ve remembered all my life.

AL: We’ve been seeing how people are reacting to these murals, especially these images of the butterflies that we are now sharing out across the state.

CC: I see people sharing pictures of themselves in front of the butterflies and talking about metamorphosis, and that is how I see it, too. The monarch migrates and brings beauty; people from Mexico bring our culture and beauty to communities across North Carolina. Art is essential to the health of any community.

One last story—there was a homeless man who stopped by to talk to me as I paint most days. Last time he was here he said, “Do you know what that butterfly’s name is?” He said, “It’s Angela.”

AL: Well, now I’m going to cry. Thank you for that story! And thank you so much for adding this beauty to Durham and for helping the NCMA reach the community in such a meaningful way. It was also great to have the support from El Pueblo’s Pueblo Power students, Antonio Alanis from El Centro Hispano, NCMA Teen Arts Council members. I look forward to seeing more Cornelio Campos murals across the state!

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