Arts » Visual Arts

Indy arts forefather, Philip Campbell, brings his art to the Harrison Center

“I set the bridge on fire, set the boats on fire, and now I’m taking off into the sunset”



You might say, figuratively speaking, that Philip Campbell's days as an arts entrepreneur are in the rear view mirror now. After all, he stepped down from his last position, that of gallery manager at Indy Indie Artist Colony, in 2013. That was just one of his roles over 20 years spent in support of the arts in Indianapolis.

It so happens that one of the works in his upcoming solo exhibition at the Harrison Center for the Arts, entitled The Dubious Lives of Ordinary Men features a depiction of a rear view mirror. There's also a windshield view from a driver's perspective. This painted wood block carving, entitled P.O.V., also shows a Hawaiian dancer figurine on the dashboard, and an exploding flower of a sunset on the horizon. But it's the rearview mirror that grabs your attention: In it you see a burning bridge and assorted apocalyptic desolation.

"I set the bridge on fire, set the boats on fire, and now I'm taking off into the sunset," says Campbell about this work.

But Campbell, 50, hasn't burnt his bridges to the Indianapolis arts community. Far from it. Campbell is still very much part of the Indianapolis arts scene. The difference is now he's working as a full time artist. His vast studio space, which he shares with his fiancée Autumn Keller, is located in the Stutz II Building.

In the '90s Campbell worked as gallery owner and arts promoter at the Faris Building. He also created the Masterpiece in a Day competition (in 1994). From that time onward, Campbell has been a huge influence on the Indy art scene.


Probably Campbell's most extraordinary move as an arts entrepreneur was his purchase — with the late Ed Funk as a partner — of Fountain Square's Murphy Building in 1999. He subsequently transformed that former department store into a space for working artists. (Funk and Campbell sold the Murphy in 2009.) This transformation spurred the activity of arts nonprofits and businesses both inside and outside the Murphy. And this activity has both revitalized Indy's Fountain Square neighborhood and spilled outside its borders.

So, considering this history, you can see why Campbell says that his February 2015 exhibition at iMOCA at the Murphy — entitled Your Catfish Friend — was "kind of a homecoming." (After all it's hard to imagine that iMOCA would've located there without Campbell having paved the way for it.)

The pièce de résistance of that exhibition was his wall-sized work — carved from a solid block of African mahogany and then painted — portraying a huge catfish. A sister work, also carved from mahogany but on a much smaller scale (16" x 20"), will be featured in the upcoming Harrison Center Show. It's a work both connected with "Your Catfish Friend"— and to a childhood memory. It's entitled "At the Bottom of Shasta Dam, in the Murky Water, Giant Catfish Lie."

"Everybody kept asking me while I was making Your Catfish Friend, why the giant catfish?" he says. "And I got about three-quarters of the way done, before I realized where he came from. When I was 10, we went to northern California to visit my uncle. And we were standing at the top of Shasta Dam looking down and he said, 'You know divers used to go down to clean out the bottom of the dam. They don't go down there anymore because the catfish have grown larger than they are.'"

Campbell began experimenting with painted wood blocks, when he made wood block prints together with Ed Funk back when they shared studio space back in the early '90s. "It's really difficult to do both," says Campbell.

But now he has the time to fully develop his ideas for his often allegorical art inspired by real life; from conception to gallery installation. And conception, for him, begins with lists.

"Mostly I make lists of words and ideas; I carry a notebook, each page is one day; that's what I draw in; that's where I write my lists," wsays Campbell ... Then I go back and I look at my lists and I pull things out of it, then I'll do these doodles."

Central to his exhibition at the Harrison Center will be the painted works carved from the 15 mahogany plates he had made in December, 2015.

The Dubious Lives of Ordinary Men might be seen of the passing of the torch in a way, from the artist-run-spaces and art galleries that dominated the scene in the '90s and '00s to the arts nonprofits that dominate the scene today. In any case, Campbell's positive experiences at iMOCA and Harrison (both nonprofits) are the fruits of a vibrant Indy arts culture that Campbell helped to create.

"My recent experience with nonprofit spaces has been really incredible," says Campbell. "The Harrison is doing everything right ... It's a real community."

The Dubious Lives of Ordinary Men
Artist Reception and Open Studio Night
The Harrison Center for the Arts
May 6, 6 to 10 pm


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