By Robin Shum
Every day, South’s custodian Uriel Campbell begins his daily rounds in the science hall. But as soon as he gets home, he trades his work clothes for a painter’s smock. “My interest is in fine art–I sculpt and paint,” he said. “I enjoy how older relics relate to modern concepts.”
Campbell is currently working on a sculpture called Sitting on a Stump, which was inspired by his childhood dreams and energy. It’s comprised of brass, copper, old driftwood, and steel. “It reminds me of my childhood,” Campbell said.
For Campbell, art is a way to appreciate nature. He said, “Nature to me is everything that exists. People, birds, animals; there is a natural part in everything that’s interrelated.”
The design process varies for each one of Campbell’s art pieces, with each creation requiring endless patience. He could wait years to discover the right rock or piece of driftwood to perfectly complete his idea. “Sometimes, I would have a whole sculpture created but it’s just missing the head.” He has even imported things from Canada and Jamaica. “If I see something I like, even if it’s in Jamaica when I’m visiting, I will ship it back here.” His patience results in various kinds of artwork, from 2-pound paintings to 100-pound abstract sculptures—all of which tell a story.
In his most recent painting, The 9/11 Paperclippers, Campbell sought to pay tribute to the stenographers, receptionists, and other office workers who were also heroes in the 9/11 tragedy. “Police and firemen are featured a lot when you talk about 9/11, but what about the men and women who worked in the offices? No one mentions them,” he said.
Campbell himself was once a fireman. As a child growing up in Jamaica, he wanted to be an artist, but due to circumstance, he instead studied the field of carpentry at age 16 and then got a job as a firefighter after five years. Since he specialized in woodworking, he also worked in the fire station workshop when he was not on call. “I would make a hatchet with handles, or fix chairs or leather,” he said.
Despite his busy schedule as a firefighter, Campbell continued to make art and enter craft competitions, winning many medals. His proudest achievement was a sculpture he made for his retiring fire chief: a sculpture of a trophy with the Star of David incorporated into it. The piece was made especially for the fire chief, and Campbell was featured in a TV interview about the trophy sculpture.
Eventually, Campbell emigrated from Jamaica to Canada in his early twenties, selling all of his art before he left. In Canada, he worked in construction before going to the United States and getting his first job at Home Depot. He then became a custodian for South, and he has been here ever since.
Campbell continues to draw inspiration for new art pieces from the world around him. As an artist, he always observes his environment. “What are you telling? Where are you going? Everyone is doing something,” he said. These questions inspired another sculpture, The Discussion. On the far right side, there is a very tall figure. “This one here, see, he has a big head. He’s doing all the talking,” Campbell said. “But the one on the left, he has no head, so he just listens.”
Art is a way to tell a story, a way to appreciate the beauty of nature. It is inspired by the surrounding world. “It is universal,” he said. “People may not understand your language, but they know pictures.” He hopes to convey this message in his art.