Appalachian Artist Leaves a Legacy of Beauty

Posted: 11/29/2012

Jesus, the newborn King—sketch by artist Charley Campbellby Jean Bach

Husband. Father. Grandfather. Artist. Prayerful man.

Those are the words that Charley Campbell’s family chose for the cover of the memorial booklet distributed at his July funeral at Glenmary’s Vanceburg, Ky., mission, where he was a longtime member. And it’s evident upon walking into the Campbell home in tiny Concord, Ky., that those words describe exactly who Charley was during his 74 years on this earth.

Photos of family are everywhere, as is his art. There are oil paintings of Native Americans and elderly people painted on barn wood and canvas; wonderfully detailed watercolor portraits of rural Lewis County scenes and dilapidated houses and barns; faceted-glass windows that he designed and constructed; walking sticks he whittled; boxes and photo albums filled with ink and pencil sketches.

“When you and I die, we won’t leave much of ourselves behind,” says Carol, his wife of 40 years. “But when artists die, they leave tangible pieces of themselves behind.”

A graduate of the Dayton (Ohio) Art Institute, Charley followed a path to Lewis County in 1972 that was, in Carol’s view, providential. He happened to see an article in a Louisville newspaper about a stained-glass workshop in Vanceburg run by Glenmary Father Pat O’Donnell.

Charley recognized a workshop employee mentioned in the article as a friend of his brother. Upon contacting the friend, Charley was offered a job as a designer. He accepted, and he and Carol—newlyweds at the time—moved to Lewis County.

They didn’t have many possessions, but Carol says they had walls filled with art! She got a job as a high school math teacher, and Charley was a stay-at-home dad. He worked with Father Pat and on other art projects. Charley and Carol’s five children—and later the 20 grandchildren—often were his models and helpers.

The Campbells became well known in Glenmary circles as active members of Holy Redeemer mission and friends to many missioners and coworkers. They have  also hosted countless volunteers who participated in outreach organizations Father Pat started and the Glenmary Farm group volunteer program.

Charley Campbell with Stations of the Cross he created for Holy Redeemer mission in Vanceburg, Ky.But Charley was perhaps best known for his faceted-glass work and the Stations of the Cross he created for Holy Redeemer.

Over the decades, he designed and/or produced faceted-glass windows for the chapel at the Glenmary Farm, Our Lady of the Fields Chapel at Glenmary’s Headquarters in Cincinnati, Sts. John and Elizabeth mission in nearby Grayson, Ky., and the chapel at the Glenmary formation house in St. Meinrad, Ind. His last project was the design and completion of two windows at Sts. John and Elizabeth in June 2012. He also did glass work for local people and businesses.

For the Stations of the Cross at Holy Redeemer, he used Lewis County buildings as well as hands and feet as the subject matter. Both Carol and Sarah, his second-oldest child, laugh as they remember traveling all over the county taking photos of buildings and of people’s hands and feet for Charley to use as models.

“He had the vision to take the sufferings around us, in our everyday lives, and show that we are suffering along with Jesus, that we are all part of the Stations of the Cross,” Carol says. It took him three years to complete the stations, described in a 1993 Glenmary booklet as a “contemporary Via Dolorosa focusing on the societal as well as spiritual suffering in our world today.”

Sarah remembers that her dad “always had multiple projects in the works and was never still. Even during meetings, he couldn’t help doodling as he listened.”

Although all of his art holds a special place in the hearts of his family and friends, Carol says his best work is seen in his watercolors. “Each one is so realistic, almost to the point that you feel like you can reach out and touch the building or the scene.”

Sarah, who holds a fine arts degree, says her dad’s work could have been gallery-worthy, but that he wasn’t interested in self-marketing or financial gain.

“He took the same care painting a running horse on someone’s barn as he took with his most detailed watercolors,” she said. “The important thing to him was making people happy through the art he created.”

Charley was a quiet, deeply spiritual man, Sarah says. “He communicated who he was through his art and he brought God into everything he did.” He also demonstrated a “silly sense of humor” with his family and friends—and sometimes in his art. For example, he might hide a rabbit in the foliage of a tree or in a field and challenge family members to find it.

His art continues to speak volumes about how he saw the world, showing that even in a falling-down barn, there is beauty. Following Charley’s death, Brother David Henley, one of the many Glenmarians who knew him, wrote that “Charley could resurrect the beauty in a dilapidated object…bringing it back to life with the colors from his paintbrushes.”

Carol says it was God’s will that brought her and Charley to Eastern Kentucky in 1972, connected them with a Glenmary mission, and allowed them and their family to be part of a larger extended family of mission members, Glenmarians, coworkers and volunteers.

That never went unnoticed by Charley. In his later years, he set aside two hours each morning for prayer. He prayed, by name, for the many people on his intentions list and prayed the Prayer of Abandonment, which reads in part: “Father, I abandon myself into your hands. Do with me what you will… Let only your will be done in me and in all your creatures….”

Charley tried to follow God’s will, a path that helped him become the best husband, father, grandfather, artist and man of prayer that he was able to be.

View more of Charley Campbell's art.

This article appears in the Winter 2012 Glenmary Challenge.