Transformation of Robert Campbell

From Panhandle flatlands to Guatemalan mountains, Houston doctor and artist Robert Campbell searched for a life with meaning.When he died, many said that life was his.

In another snapshot, Campbell is a boy of ten or 11, wearing a cowboy hat and boots, feeding a calf with a baby's bottle while two kittens arch and preen at his feet. And there is another of a lightly bearded Campbell toward the end of his life. His beautiful, wavy hair is nearly shaven, and he's smiling while lighting a candle, a signature symbol in his final pieces of art. He looks lean, pared down and luminous as a Byzantine icon.

This is not the house of a pros-perous physician, which Campbell, a neurologist with a medical degree from Baylor, could have been. (One colleague recalled that Campbell turned down an offer from a neurologists group that would have paid him half a million dollars a year.) Nor is it the cell of an ascetic monk. Rather, it is the house of a rare kind of person in America today: a religious aesthete. The house is crammed with wooden statues of saints and crucifixes, Latin American retablos and black-and-white Latin American art photography. The study is furnished with a computer, a television and a Spanish-colonial secretary crammed with books. A metal building in the back of the lot houses a library and studio. The arrangement reflects all of Campbell's interests in art, religion and medicine.

The foundation of Campbell's life was laid in the innocence of the agricultural town of Claude, where he was born on July 7, 1955. His parents, Phil and Mary Jane Campbell, are sturdy, quiet, dignified people, who built a prosperous ranch and farm, raising cattle, wheat, milo and hay. (Mounds of fragrant hay would figure in Campbell's large art installations.) As a little boy, this scholarly, spiritual man was the class cutup. Educators now believe that a sense of humor indicates a creative intelligence. He set up his chemistry set in an outbuilding behind his parents' house and performed experiments. Even as a boy, he wanted to be a doctor, though not necessarily for altruistic reasons. One of his classmates recalled that Campbell once said he wanted to be a doctor for the "gold."

Campbell was a good enough high school football player to win a scholarship to a small college, but he chose instead to attend the University of Texas, where he was an honors major in English literature, graduating in 1977. He was also interested in Latin American literature, and when the great blind Argentine writer Jorge Luis Borges visited the Austin campus, Campbell was assigned to be his escort. At the same time, he was a self-described "frat rat" who had lots of fun.

Although friends told him he couldn't do it, Campbell sought relief from the grind of his medical studies at Baylor College of Medicine by simultaneously taking art lessons at the Glassell School. Years later, he would say, "Art feeds into medicine and medicine feeds into art. Art should be socially responsible and it is a part of the healing process. Medicine is more technical, and having lost a lot of its humanity, regains it through art."

Sometime in 1984, while he was finishing his residency in neurology, Campbell learned that he was HIV-positive. We now know that the average life expectancy of infected people is ten years, but based on the information he had available then, Campbell couldn't have expected to live more than two or three years. He had become a man under pressure to do something with the rest of his short life. His most important need was to resolve the conflict he felt between being a physician and an artist.

He thought he would have more time to make art if he worked in a public health clinic, where a doctor's workweek can consist of three long, intense days. From 1985 to 1987, he wove the elements of his life together by working in clinics in the small South Texas towns of Cotulla and Carrizo Springs, which sit a bare hour's drive away from the Mexican border. The Mexican vaqueros who worked on his father's ranch had always impressed him with their dignity. Now, at his clinics, he was working almost exclusively with migrant Mexican farm workers.

Campbell had grown up in the Disciples of Christ First Christian Church in Claude. During college, he had attended an Episcopal church, but was disturbed there by what he saw as an emphasis on affluence. During medical school he quit attending church, and by the time he began his medical work had stopped thinking about God.

Then, on a vacation to Santa Fe in 1985, he met a priest at a restaurant who introduced him to liberation theology, an approach to religious thought that had taken hold among many Catholic prelates in Latin America. A key tenet of that theology is the "preferential option," in which the materially rich person embraces a spiritual poverty, seeking to become an equal with the poor. In doing this, one is turned inside out, creating a moral imperative to improve the material condition of others. In Latin America, some priests who have called for social reform have been ostracized by the ruling classes as communists, and on occasion even murdered by military cliques.

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