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.

Liberation theology requires an imaginative commitment, and a sincere engagement with the self. Among other things, it requires a fully felt sense of one's own mortality. It emphasizes the ancient Christian tenet that through serving others, one becomes whole.

Campbell's discussions and correspondence with his new mentor led him to study art history, particularly that of the Renaissance. He was especially taken by the work of 15th-century painter and Dominican friar, Fra Angelico, whose directness, naivete and purity of color distinguished him from the more sophisticated artists of his time. As a result of this study, Campbell was led to paint a series of small, figurative frescoes with religious themes. In one, a physician examines a patient under the gaze of the Virgin of Guadalupe.

During this period, Campbell became friends with Michael Tracy, a well-known Catholic artist living in a tiny village near the Rio Grande who was producing tormented, anguished sculptures and paintings that grew out of a Latin American sensibility. In one of Tracy's works, currently on display at the Menil Collection, a 4-foot-high cross has been decorated with dozens of metal, heart-shaped milagros, pierced with hundreds of spikes and nails like an African fetish, and stabbed with knives and swords. Tracy's work seems to embody a religious ecstasy of brutality, pain and martyrdom.

Inspired by Tracy's immersion in religious and folk imagery, Campbell took his own direction, one that moved toward tran-quillity, repose and peace. His figurative work grew more abstract and symbolic, emphasizing the contemplative quality of colors and textures. Cru-cifixes, retablos, sacred hearts appeared.

As Campbell began healing his split between art and medicine, new opportunities to serve others arose. In 1988, he was working at Casa de Amigos, a Harris County public health clinic, when a friend told him about refugees in Belize who had fled the unspeakable cruelties of El Salvador's civil war. Several thousand of them had established a village in a remote Central American rain forest, where they were living in thatched huts with dirt floors and clearing small fields to plant corn.

They called their community the Valley of Peace. The government of Belize, working with United Nations relief agencies, was struggling to provide the settlement with shelter and water. The refugees had almost no medical care.

The refugee effort was directed by Father Lazarus Augustine, an articulate and well-educated Belizean priest who had been schooled in the United States, Ireland and Rome. Campbell and Father Lazarus met in Houston; within months, Campbell was raising money and flying to Belize to work in a new clinic. Campbell named the organization he created for this work Sociedad San Martin de Porres, after Latin America's patron saint of the poor and marginalized. During a two-year period, the Sociedad supplied volunteer clinical workers, two ambulances, a lab, generator, radio, water wells, books and training for health workers. Then it turned the clinic over to the control of Belize's government, which has since continued the work.

During his quarterly visits to Belize, Campbell talked with Father Lazarus about spiritual matters. Campbell had been attending an Episcopal church in Houston but was restless for more answers. Campbell was strongly oriented toward religion, Father Lazarus says, but he was very reserved.

"Gradually he began to unfold, but I don't think I got the whole story," Father Lazarus says. "There were elements of his life he did not necessarily share, and I am not necessarily inquisitive. I am more of a listener, and you are free to tell me, but seldom do I inquire."

When he asked Campbell about his thoughts about marriage, Father Lazarus recalls, "He simply said to me, 'I am gay.' I accepted him and never talked about it. For you see, from the vantage point of my community, that would have been taboo, and that could have undermined the good he did."

Perhaps this simple acceptance enabled Campbell to embrace a church that still condemns homosexuality. Campbell's conversion was a gradual thing, Father Lazarus says. Finally, Campbell asked for baptism, which Father Lazarus performed with the approval of the bishop of Belize.

In Houston, Campbell affiliated with Holy Rosary Church on Travis Street, a conservative congregation where the music has always been traditional, and where one can still hear the Latin mass weekly. Holy Rosary is also a Dominican church, the order to which two men who were major influences on Campbell's life belonged: the artist Fra Angelico and the healer San Martin de Porres. At Holy Rosary, Campbell joined the lay order of Dominicans, a group that meets monthly to discuss spiritual questions. Having grown up in a relatively austere Protestant denomination, Campbell now embraced the rituals of Catholicism, serving as a lector and acolyte.

Reflecting on Campbell's life, Father Victor Brown of Holy Rosary recalls a devout man who laughed easily, and who was reticent about his personal life. Brown chuckles at the thought of a physician who didn't seem to own a necktie and who drove a small pickup truck. He seems bemused by the sacrifices that many artists regard as requisite in order to create. Brown recalls going to one of Campbell's first installations in 1989, when Campbell was part of the Commerce Street artists' cooperative in an old warehouse on the edge of downtown.

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