Welcome to the Art&Seek Artist Spotlight. Every Thursday, here and on KERA FM, we explore the personal journey of a different North Texas creative. As it grows, this site, artandseek.org/spotlight, will eventually paint a collective portrait of our artistic community. Check out all the artists we’ve profiled.
Rarely has any single artist, other than an architect, influenced an entire North Texas neighborhood the way Frank Campagna [cam-PAG-nah] has. He’s even been called the godfather of Deep Ellum. For this latest Artist Spotlight, we caught up with Campagna getting out his ladder and his spray cans.
A month ago, Frank Campagna busted open his forehead. He was ten-feet up a ladder painting a mural in a restaurant in Coppell. The floor was slick, his ladder slid and the 60-year-old artist came down — hard.
Campagna has long looked like a grizzled old boxer. Now, with the big new scar on his face, his look is complete.
“Woooh,” he says of the fall. “Just learning to play it a little safer now with my ladder.”
Yep, Campagna’s getting right back up, painting another mural, this one on the side of Cane Rosso. Because of graffiti artists the past two decades, the paint industry has developed all sorts of new colors and high-control spray tips. But Campagna is old school: He learned air-brushing technique in college in the ’70s, so he does all his effects by hand and by eye. He takes a handful of standard Rustoleum cans up the ladder with him, and when he needs a different color, he does a one-hand catch when his 26-year-old daughter Amber — an artist in her own right — tosses the can up to him.
This is what Campagna does, and this is Deep Ellum, where he belongs. He’s been painting wall murals here since 1989. Artist Richard Ross says, “I believe that an artist is a voice, and Deep Ellum has become his stage. That’s Frank’s voice all around the neighborhood. That’s what you hear and that’s what you see when you come in. It sets the vibe.”
You’ve probably seen Campagna’s work without knowing it. The ten years that the Gypsy Tea Room was open, he painted somewhere around a thousand murals on its walls advertising upcoming acts like Patti Smith, Sonic Youth and Snoop Dogg. Those jungle murals on the Cafe Brazil on Elm Street? Those are his. Or that iconic image along Good-Latimer welcoming you to Deep Ellum, Texas? The one with a giant black -and-white TV showing a T-Rex attacking a robot? That’s his, too.
And that’s Campagna’s characteristic mix of sci-fi movies, humor, album-cover art and ‘60s psychedelia — “things that I like, yeah. And things that would make people scratch their heads and go, ‘Wow. I can’t believe they did that. That’s not right.”
Or as daughter Amber puts it: “My dad gets to paint what he likes and get paid — how many artists can say the same? And what he’s painting now is Godzilla and Big Tex in flames. How cool is that?”
Campagna was an early adopter of Deep Ellum as an art and music scene. In 1982, he turned his art studio loft – called Studio D – into one of the area’s first unlicensed hardcore punk clubs. He’d already been designing flyers and posters for other venues. Now, to pay the rent and help out his friends, he booked their bands – and the bands he liked, like Husker Du and the Dead Kennedys.
But two things happened. One, the club wasn’t working financially. “I realized that in order to make it, I’d have to book bands I didn’t like,” he says. “I turned down the Miami Sound Machine for 700 dollars. But I’m sure Gloria Estafan went on to do marvelous things with her career,” he says with a laugh.
And then the second thing: In 1986, Campagna’s girlfriend gave birth to their son Frankie. Campagna decided he needed to get a regular job – it’d be the last he’s ever held. But it did have a profound influence on him.
In a way, he says, having Frankie “kinda saved my life, made me re-think what I was doing. I’ll be honest with you. I used to enjoy taking drugs. But he kinda saved my life because I was living in a punk rock nightclub. I was surrounded by homeless and mentally ill people and drug addicts.
“I got out right at the right time, y’know?”
No surprise: Campagna’s regular job waiting tables and tending bar at the Signature Athletic Club restaurant didn’t last. He learned what he’d learned back at East Texas State University. He dropped out because he found he could already make money with his art. He started buying plain t-shirts for a buck, stenciling on rockstar names and faces and selling the t-shirts at concerts for five bucks. It all became a part of his do-it-yourself approach to running a club or hustling paintings.
“If you wanna be a successful artist, you are the CEO,” he insists. “You are the quality control. You are the advertising. You are the accountant. And really, all you are is somebody who wants to paint a picture. It’s not easy, but you have to take reality into the equation.”
His son Frankie grew up and formed the band, Spector 45, a trio that played a ferocious mashup of punk and rockabilly, with Frankie as lead singer, songwriter and guitarist. But while Frankie helped save Campagna’s life, he also punched a huge hole in it. Unbeknownst to most, Frankie, the unstoppable band leader, struggled with depression. On New Year’s Day 2011, Campagna was awakened by a call from the police.
Campagna recalls groggily picking up the phone at 7 a.m. “I just answered, ‘Hello?’ And he says, ‘Hello, is this Frank Campagna?’ And I said, ‘Is he dead?’
‘Sir, I’d like to come and talk to you in person. Do you still live at –’ So I just hung up the phone.”
But of all the things to ask first, why – ‘Is he dead?’
“Because I knew,” Campagna says. “I just knew.”
Eventually, in the wake of Frankie’s suicide and, later, that of his bassist, Adam Carter, Campagna helped establish Foundation 45. It provides free professional counseling in Deep Ellum.
On a cool, crisp Friday evening, I walk up to yet another reason Campagna is the godfather of Deep Ellum. It’s the Kettle Art Gallery, all lit up, its doors open, Campagna standing outside, greeting people he knows.
Campagna and Kirk Hopper founded Kettle in 2005, back when Deep Ellum was in a deep slump. Most of the rest of the block on Elm Street was completely dark, Campagna recalls. But the idea for the gallery was a work-around, a way to get past the exclusive practices of Dallas’ more upscale venues. In short, it’s another DIY project: You can’t get in, you start your own.
Kettle Art has been receptive to fledgling local artists — and some, like Sergio Garcia, have gained national notice. Campagna says he currently has a loose stable of about twenty artists, and he likes shows with three artists at a time, to mix things up. The artworks aren’t selling for thousands of dollars; that’s one of the appeals of Kettle Art. It’s a walk-up gallery; it’s perfectly possible to stroll in, fall in love with something and buy it on the spot.
Richard Ross is one of Kettle’s regulars — one of the few painters, Campagna says, he’ll put up in solo shows. “What Frank and what Kettle have done,” Ross says, “is they’ve given me a stage to perform from. So it’s a platform that I can project my voice from.”
But Kettle Art might not have survived if it weren’t for developer Scott Rohrman, owner of 42 Real Estate. Unlike other developers in the area who are busily tearing down the older buildings to put up more high-end residential towers, Rohrman wants to maintain Deep Ellum’s small-scale, red-brick, funky urban feel. With that in mind, he convinced Campagna to move Kettle Art to Main Street three years ago, when it looked like Campagna might have to close up shop. And Rohrman has instituted the 42 Murals project, taking off on Campagna’s years of painting the neighborhood’s walls. The project has brought a vivid, wildly eclectic variety of large scale paintings to the area, spreading Campagna’s influence in all directions.
As for his own art, Campagna is going international these days. A hilltop town in Sicily called Prizzi has long been considered one of Italy’s ‘painted villages.’ But its older frescoes are now faded or gone. So Campagna has been hired to paint new ones. He warned them they wouldn’t be in any classic Italian style. Of course, they assured him. That’s why they hired an American.
So what did they suggest he paint?
“They’re very proud of their anti-Mafia stance,” says Campagna. “Now, I don’t really think it a good idea, calling the Mafia out on their home turf. But I really like the idea of the headline, ‘The Godfather of Deep Ellum Goes to the Land of the Godfather.’”
To paint a little bit of Deep Ellum deep in the heart of Sicily.
Mark Birnbaum’s 2005 documentary on Frank Campagna:
When did you first consider yourself an artist? Not when did you start to paint, but when did you think, ‘This is it, this is what I want to do and will try to make a living with’?
To be honest with you, I was probably about 18 or 19 years old when I considered myself an artist. I was going to school at East Texas State University in Commerce and studying fine art. I had a homework assignment in an airbrush class. I’d started on the assignment and brought it to class and the teacher said, ‘It looks like you tried using every technique in the book. You need to go home and define which technique you’re using.’
That night, I broke it out and started working on it, and somebody came over and bought it from me. So the next day, I went to class, and he said, ‘Well, where’s your homework?’ And I said, ‘I sold it.’
It was kind of a lightbulb moment in my life. I just realized, why should I be paying to go to college when all I have to do is do what I already do anyway and learn how to make a living that way?
So one of the first things that I’ll tell any young artist, if you want to become an artist when you grow up, do not get a job. Learn to make a living via your art and what you wanna do. It’s either that or go to school and then be burdened with student loans forever and ever. I’m not against college — if that’s what you need. But really, a lot of the things they’re teaching in art schools these days has a lot to do with conceptual art, which is fine. But you can’t conceive of paying your bills. So what’s the point?
Have you let go of anything, given up anything to pursue your art or to keep this gallery going? Did you quit any day job you had?
Fortunately, I don’t believe I let go of anything. I did let go of opportunities between the births of my children. Frankie was born in October of ’86 and Amber was born in April of ’89. And I thought it’d be a good idea to get a job and stabilize — so I became a bartender and waiter at the Premier Health Club over at Mockingbird and Central, and towards the end of my tenure there, they wanted me to become the general manager of the Signature Athletic Club.
Instead, I said, ‘I can’t do this any longer.’ It was a crossroads. I was already doing murals and making more on artwork than I was waiting tables and bartending. And so I gave up an opportunity to be a general manager at a health club and a restaurant [laughs] to continue my dreams of being an artist.
And really, that’s the only regular job I’ve had since 1979-1980.
Do you have any rituals you follow to prepare or create a work, to prepare yourself?
I’d say on my first day I just like to go there and prep the wall. I try to get comfortable with it and my surroundings more than anything. Of course, I need to take notice of any imperfections there may be in the wall that I cannot correct or that I can incorporate into the artwork, to enhance the artwork. It usually takes about a day to get comfortable.
Is part of this judging how much sunlight or exposure to the weather the wall’s likely to have? Does that affect your choices?
Color-wise, yes. How I work also depends a lot on what time of year I’m working. In the summertime, I want to work — if it’s an east-facing wall, I want to work in the afternoon. If it’s a west-facing wall, the opposite. I just rather work in the sunlight when it’s cold and dress in dark clothes, and then wear light-colored clothes in the summer and work in the shade. I’m getting too old for that — up on a ladder out in 100 degrees.
Speaking of which, what happens when you can no longer get up a ladder and paint?
I’ve made preparations for that. The gallery is a nice way to kick back. Kettle doesn’t make much money for me, really. But it’s not losing it, either. The fact is I’m also more interested in creating paintings for myself. I’ve got a friend who does beautiful stretchers [wood-framed canvases] for me and I have a beautiful studio some buddies of mine built for me ten years ago. I had to take a loan out to do that but it’s all done and paid for now. And you know, I can sit down and crank out a painting a day, and they’re going for pretty good prices these days.
So it’s not like I have to get up on a ladder these days.
How has being in North Texas affected or influenced your work? Would you be a different artist, creating different art, if you’d lived elsewhere?
If I had the same career — let’s just say that my great-grandmother started leasing an apartment in New York City in 1930 that is still in the family to this day. It’s at 36th and Lexington Avenue in the middle of Midtown, three blocks from the Chrysler Building and three blocks from the Empire State Building. That’s prime real estate in New York City. And I had the opportunity when I was bouncing around the country after college, my mom and dad were like, ‘Frank, if you’re going to do whatever you want, why don’t you move in with your grandmother?’
I’ll be one hundred percent frank with you. At the time, I really enjoyed indulging in drugs. And I loved my grandmother so much, she was such a major inspiration to me, I would never do anything in my life to hurt her or embarrass her. And that’s the reason I did not take up my parents on that suggestion or her on that offer. I was afraid I’d fallen in with the wrong crowd or I’d end up doing something stupid or I’d bring the wrong person around or something like that. I was at least aware of those pitfalls at the time. So I didn’t.
But had I done my career in New York City, who knows? I’ve gotten away with so much here in Dallas, and Dallas has been so kind and generous to me. It’s a much easier city than New York City in a lot of ways. But in another sense, there’s just ten times more art there. And the cream still rises to the top.
So who knows?