Joel Dempsey

Teacher and former student

The first time I saw Vincent Campanella … it was outside the library [of Park College, now Park University, in Parkville, Missouri].  He was approaching the winding steps that were built into the side of the hill; they led from the library down to Copley Hall.  David Luttenburger and Rick Cromie were talking, and I was listening until this man headed in the direction of their conversation, swerving from MacKay Hall with boxes lodged in his hands and stacked above his head.  As he came nearer, Cromie and Lutenburger moved aside in subtle wonder.  We excused ourselves as he pointed the foot and directed the eye towards the first step.  I shouted, "Need some help?"  The refusal was direct and coupled with authority that made me say, "Do it yourself!" … and he did.  I watched him twist his way down the steps and head in the direction of the Art Department on the third floor of Alumni Hall.

I was 18 years old, when Campy in Alumni Hall handed a piece of paper and a stub of charcoal to each student.  It was a very large class.  He demonstrated what was to be done with our meager piece of paper and charcoal.  Then he went into his office and closed the door.  Near the end of the two-hour class Campy returned.  I had drawn a box in the same shape as the bottles I saw on the table.  Under the bottles was a stained white tablecloth.  The box I could draw, but all the other relationships of the bottle to the tablecloth, and the window, or the trees and the space between the bottles, and the window, had gone out the window.  David and Rick were waiting after class and we drank some beer from a bottle and talked about those relationships.

The classes in Art progressed and we found that the small boxes we drew were thumbnail sketches for bigger paintings in the next semester.  Our class became smaller, and the criticism of our paintings grew more tenacious.  We would place our paintings for the week on the floor and Campy would critique them.  Sometimes it would be structure, color, the use of hot and cold colors, and many times he would test our truthfulness.  "Where are you looking? What are you looking at?  Why look at that?  There is nothing there; what are you doing?  Don't you see all those cool colors… That's not hot!  It's cool … and Boyer, your structure is going to hell!"  He dropped ashes on Boyer's painting and some on mine.  There were a few students who didn't always show him work.  They talked, and to get a grade they bought Campy a box of good cigars.

Remember the cardboard boxes?  What do you think he did with the boxes?  He cut them up and we painted on them.  At the end of class he took a sponge and water and wiped the cardboard clean.  When we came to class the next day, there it was, a piece of cardboard with a "morose" background.  Vincent would assign that word, morose, to his own work.

When it came to teaching, Mr. Campanella could with ease take the toughest students and bend them to his interest in art, just as the cardboard bent when drying.  Take for example the group of students who gave him cigars.  They were good cigars and I am sure that he enjoyed the restful smoke.  One of those students is now teaching painting at the college level.  "Hey, John, have any of your students ever given you cigars?"

I remember when I started teaching in this community, there was a need to culminate the ideas that I had learned and wanted to pass on to my class.  It was a large class, hard to handle at times.  I invited Vincent to meet them.  He did more than cover the objectives written in my lesson plan.  It was fascinating to see Vincent paint, and he painted because it was better to do and show than talk!  There were no questions after Vincent finished painting.  The class was amazed at the transformation of Edith Shelly that took place on the canvas during that hour and fifteen minutes in the spring of 1969 at Line Creek Elementary School in the R-5 School District.  Vincent articulated his sharp intelligence in art with paint and brush.

After retirement from Park College, Vincent would spend the evenings at my place in Shawnee Mission, Kansas, having wine, or martinis if the day had gone well for him.  Sometimes the talk was Cezanne, De Kooning, Delacroix, Van Gogh, Picasso, Kline … "Where did you receive your training, Joel?"  

"Girard College - Franz Kline went there."   

His conversation was about everything.  From poverty to the finest education in the world, Vincent was always studying, integrating, forming relationships and acknowledging that he did not think of his work as "abstract."  All I could do was listen to him concatenate the world of art in the past as it unfolded before, during and after dinner.  But there was always room for a walk and a puff of cigar after all the discourse and listening.  "You remember some of the dialogue, Beasley?"  You were doing what one does in the presence of Vincent Campanella.

But it doesn't matter, Vincent.  "When you are dead: you are dead!"  A Campy axiom, said to Joel Dempsey in 1974 at a dinner engagement.  The topic was philosophy, Wittgenstein and Epicurus.  A little coffee and he was off on a trip to New York City.

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