By Noma Faingold
While Mark Campbell was earning his Master of Fine Arts degree at Academy of Art University in San Francisco, he wrote something that he thought to be true intellectually, but that he did not truly feel until after years of painting, teaching and meditating.
“I wrote in my paper that you can’t paint one stroke without it affecting the rest of the painting,” Campbell said. “I wrote it, but I didn’t know it. I was onto something profound. But now I feel it. It gives me hope because it means I keep learning.”
Above: Artist Mark Campbell. Courtesy photo.
Campbell, 52, insists he greatly benefits as an artist by teaching at Laguna Honda Hospital (the large skilled-nursing and rehabilitation center owned and operated by the San Francisco Department of Public Health) and other senior residential facilities in the Bay Area, through a non-profit called Art With Elders (AWE). In addition to teaching, he is also the executive director of the program.
Since the COVID-19 shelter-in-place order, Campbell has not been able to teach in-person classes and instead provides video instruction. But he keeps in touch with many of his students by phone.
In his latest piece, a somewhat surrealistic landscape, Campbell took the suggestion of one of his students, a former San Francisco Opera costume designer, to lay the paint on really thick, a technique known as impasto. The foreground is heavily layered and textured, while the horizon looks dreamy and sleek – a real contrast. Campbell grew excited while describing how the painting evolved.
Above: “Freida,” by Mark Campbell. Courtesy image.
“It’s not my normal technique, but I like what happened,” he said. “The joy of exploration and discovery is what I’m after.”
Campbell’s classes are not traditional. They are improvisational and collaborative. He wants each student to experience their own artistic journey.
“It’s not curriculum-based. We have students direct their learning. Everybody’s vision has value,” he said.
While Campbell will offer critiques to help his students develop skills, he gets rejuvenated just by being there.
“The energy is amazing. The music is going. There’s a lot of laughter,” he said. “There’s a sense of community.”
There are about 50 art students at Laguna Honda and 450 overall in the Bay Area participating in the AWE program, which was founded by the late Brent Nettle in 1985, under the name Eldergivers. The organization has 18 artist instructors and holds an annual juried exhibition at Laguna Honda. Campbell, who has helmed AWE since 2013, is planning to stage the October event virtually this year.
Above””Ekstasis,” by Mark Campbell. Courtesy image.
Campbell is a Sunset District resident and has made a comfortable living as an artist for 25 years. He starts his day with two hours of meditation. He began meditating in college, thinking it would be a “good way for me to center and deal with the chaos life throws at you,” he said.
It didn’t take long for Campbell to realize his intentions were off. After studying ancient Buddhist texts, he came to the conclusion: “My job is not to heal myself but to help others suffer less.”
The concept of how one brush stroke affects all others bleeds into how Campbell lives his life.
“I arrived at that awareness through working with my students,” he said. “Being self-focused could make me temporarily calm, but it never got me to a state of happiness. Giving back is incredibly fulfilling. It is nourishment for my own creativity.”
Above: “Holiday,” by Mark Campbell. Courtesy image.
Campbell has been married for nearly 25 years to Dee, a nurse at UCSF, and is the father of two Lowell High students: Stefan, 17 and Christabel, 14. He has also played guitar for decades in a funk/jazz/soul group called Home. Despite the COVID-19 limitations, Home played a gig at Duboce Park in August. The tip jar total was more than $800.
Campbell’s artwork, which has been exhibited in several galleries and museums, is eclectic in subject matter (landscapes, figurative and abstract), style (surrealism, realism and cubism) and medium (stone, wood and oils).
“I’m trying not to get pinned down,” he said. “I don’t want the work to tell too much.”