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.

On the surrounding walls Campbell mounted the traditional 14 stations of the cross, each consisting of abstract cerulean squares flecked with gold and draped with silk chalinas from Mexico. He also added a 15th station, one representing the resurrection of Christ, that was in white.

Campbell was especially inspired by the ceremonies of the cofradias of the Guatemalan villages around Lake Atitlan. The cofradia is a Spanish religious fraternal organization adopted by the Maya to incorporate their traditional gods into Christian ritual. Each of the old gods is identified with a Catholic saint. On certain feast days, the cofradia may even parade a pagan idol through a town. Members of the cofradia act as intercessors for families, saying prayers while amassing dozens and dozens of candles on the floor of the town's cathedral. The next morning, the amalgam of stubs is scraped away and melted for use again. Such ceremonies amount to an alternate liturgy and, by the dogmatic, might be viewed as heretical.

Campbell, though, saw in the activity an affecting beauty. After witnessing a ceremony at the Church of St. Thomas in Chichicastenango, Campbell piled his final works with molten masses of candles, whose drippings and expired light were meant to represent the fragility of life. He urged the people who purchased these works to add candles and take them off when they deteriorated, just as with other works he urged owners to replace the dried flowers and tortillas he had incorporated. The effect was that instead of making a permanent, untouchable work of art intended to last for hundreds of years, Campbell made art that, like the soul, requires constant renewal.

This art, like his actions, touched a number of people. Judith Pearson, a graduate student in art history at Rice University, decided to write her master's thesis about Campbell's work. Pearson, along with photographer George Hixson, helped Campbell organize his last exhibition. As Campbell's dealer, Martha Claire Tompkins had the responsibility of seeing that his work ended up in the right hands.

But of all the people who have felt renewed by Campbell, Ricardo Avila has been among the most blessed. He lived with Campbell until he died, saying morning and evening prayers, working for Sociedad San Martin. Avila, who grew in El Paso, met Campbell through mutual friends following a 1991 AIDS conference. A hairdresser and stylist, Avila had worked with models on fashion photography in Houston and New York and at the Michael Kemper Salon, an upscale salon in River Oaks. He was looking for someone who shared his desire to help others.

"I had gone through three or four years of horrible relationship stuff," says Avila. "I didn't come on this planet just to find the perfect partner to make me happy. So I said I was going to give that up, and I was going to dedicate myself to helping the poor, but I didn't know how that was going to happen."

Campbell seemed to be the answer to his prayers. Campbell did almost all the work of organizing a constant stream of volunteers to Guatemala. He picked them up at the Houston airport, briefed them, sent them off to Central America, and then picked them up again on their return and debriefed them. He wrote the newsletters and the fund solicitations. Avila started sharing these responsibilities. After several months, Avila moved in with Campbell.

On his first trip to a Guatemalan clinic, Avila recalls, he found himself standing between Campbell and a nurse, holding a box of medicine and being crowded by patients who wanted help. "I told them to be patient and that after they had been examined there would be medicine for them," he says. "And I knew that I wanted

to be able to do more than just stand there and hold that box."
Campbell encouraged Avila to finish his college education and pursue a medical degree, which he has been doing. Yet the most important encouragement that Campbell gave, says Avila, was spiritual. "What Robert did for me was to re-fire,

re-spark all the beauty of the rituals of Catholicism," Avila says, "all the ceremony and the prayers that I grew up with and was so accustomed to, things I had taken for granted."

With Campbell's death, Avila has become the director of Sociedad San Martin de Porres. Some friends are gently urging him to dismantle his shrine to Campbell and get on with the hard work ahead.

Others fret that a cult of personality is growing up around Campbell. They saw Campbell's conflicts and his weaknesses, his regrets and his longings. Such skeptics tend to be intellectuals, and intellectuals tend to require perfection, not just in saints, but in everyone else. Campbell's cures, after all, were not miraculous, they were wedded to technology, to clean water and sanitation and antibiotics, to the physical world of human action. Campbell loved good food and wine and conversation and art. He believed in action. He was someone like us.

Sainthood is often identified with martyrdom, sacrifice and miracles. San Martin de Porres, for example, was known for his kindness to animals. In his stained-glass depiction at Holy Rosary Church, rats are shown at his feet. The story goes that when rats invaded the pantry at the monastery, Martin told them that if they would leave, he would feed them in the garden, and they did. And he did. Although many miraculous cures were attributed to Martin during his lifetime in the early 17th century, he was not beatified until 1837. In 1962, at the time of Vatican II, Martin was canonized.

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