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.

"It was in this terrifying area, and I recall passing a mangy dog and wondering if it would let me by," says Father Brown. "It was freezing cold, but he had lit a path into the space, and this vast interior gloom was lit with candles. I asked him 'How do you keep warm?' and he said, 'I'm afraid I don't.'"

Campbell's friends often remarked that he seemed capable of doing four things at once. In his examination room in Houston, he might be composing a letter for a Central American clinic, reading a book in Spanish, handling a phone call and talking with a patient, yet he was able to shift his focus from each task to the next with total concentration. He wrote newsletters and networked on the telephone, and handled the tedious work of his organization without complaint. When he asked people for something they almost always complied. Sometimes he didn't have to ask. People simply volunteered, from an artist who knew how to do plumbing and wiring to a retired Guatemalan politician with government and UN contacts.

"Robert produced money as if by miracle," Father Brown says. "He would come to me with sheaves of checks from all over the country, some for as little as five dollars. I would ask him, 'Robert how do all these people know about your work?' and he would say, 'I don't know, I don't know. God provides."

While preparing to turn the Belize clinic over to the government in 1990, Campbell searched Guatemala for another place that required his services. He found it in the town of San Miguel Pochuta near Lake Atitlan. The lake is dazzlingly beautiful and deep, a tourist attraction surrounded by rugged volcanoes. It is fringed with a dozen villages named after the apostles, most of which are populated by desperately poor Maya who still speak their native dialect. During the last 20 years, human rights activists have estimated that as many as 120,000 Guatemalans have been killed and another 46,000 "disappeared" as three successive military governments have attempted to quash a handful of armed leftist guerrillas. Many of these murders, including that of a revered Catholic priest, have occurred in this area. Volunteers to the clinic are strictly advised never to talk about politics.

The agricultural workers at Pochuta served in near peonage to 37 coffee fincas. They were malnourished, lacked potable water and had not even the basics of sanitation and health care. Campbell began his work with a three-room clinic that was quickly overwhelmed by need. When that clinic was destroyed by an earthquake in 1991, the Sociedad San Martin raised more than $100,000 to build not only a clinic but also a hospital. Campbell raised a large chunk of that money when he sold a small frame house in Woodland Heights that he had inherited from a patient. In 1993, the rebuilt medical center was also turned over to local control, with funding assured from an outside source. In 1994, the society opened a new clinic in another village near Lake Atitlan, Santa Clara Laguna. Working with the local Catholic bishop, the Sociedad has created a community board that will ultimately take full responsibility for operating that clinic.

While doing this work, Campbell was sometimes ill, but he was selective about to whom he revealed the ultimate cause. Father Brown says he didn't know Campbell was seriously ill until long after he had known him. "He had such equanimity in the face of this disease," Father Brown recalls. "There was no bitterness in his spirit, no resentment toward God."

This lack of resentment may have stemmed in part from working with the poor and impoverished. Whatever the Maya lack in material goods, Campbell felt, they make up for in spiritual richness. He was particularly attracted to the fervent pageantry of their feast-day parades, when costumed men pay for the privilege of carrying a huge icon through streets, trampling the alfombras, carpets in complex designs made of flower petals and colored sawdust. Campbell's fascination with the Mayan culture was reflected in his final art exhibition, Tierra de Vida (Land of Life), which occupied the entire exhibition space at DiverseWorks in December and January.

Art, Campbell said, was the place where he worked out his innermost thoughts, and in the DiverseWorks exposition, thick with the smell of copal incense, he revealed how in seeking to heal others in the Guatemalan highlands he had healed his own spiritual afflictions. In the front gallery, Campbell created a chapel to San Martin de Porres. One of its central features was a mound of dirt fringed with corn and dried grasses. In the center of the mound, machetes -- their handles wrapped with white bandages -- pierced corn tortillas. The work, called O Tierra, Esperame (Oh, Earth, Wait for Me), embodied many of Campbell's social and personal themes.

For the Maya, the raising of corn is a sacred enterprise, with centuries of ritual behind it. But in Guatemala, the ownership of land is a contentious issue. A small number of people, some of them from old colonial families and others, increasingly, from the ranks of military officers, control the vast majority of land. In Campbell's art work, the piercing of the tortillas recalls the piercing of the body of Christ, and the suffering of the poor. The machetes, which are used to clear land, seem to suggest a latent threat, implying, perhaps, that one day the Indians of Guatemala will arise as they have in the Mexican state of Chiapas. And of course, there was the implication of the burial mound that awaited the artist, already in the final months of his illness.

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