The Artist as Professor

by Dr. Burton Dunbar

From Vincent Campanella: Classical Abstractionist, The Albrecht-Kemper Museum of Art, St. Joseph, Missouri, Septeber 15 - November 4, 2007.

Campanella’s role as a teacher was important for at least two reasons. First, he saw himself primarily as a professor of painting for about the last fifty years of his life. In that capacity, he developed a method of teaching students how to translate what we saw into two-dimensional compositions which constantly referred to the geometric structure of nature. Second, understanding his pedagogical methodology helps to understand the theoretical underpinnings of his own art.

Campanella’s method of teaching was first developed during his time in Wyoming through the WPA. His early method of examining his subjects, “up close, everything in detail”* was part of his training through the Leonardo da Vinci Art School. But it was not until Campanella attempted to apply his academic training to the vast Wyoming landscape did he realize that his largely representational style could not capture his surroundings in a manner that satisfied him. It was through this realization that Campanella created a new way of seeing and analyzing nature to come up with a style that translated the western landscape into pictorial form. The result was a five-step methodology that became the basis for his teaching curriculum at both Kansas City Art Institute and Park University.

Campanella taught his students to look first at nature in the terms of shapes, not things. Thus, a grove of trees or a group of buildings could present outlines of wondrous dimensions in unusual configurations. The first drawing assignment given to students was to look at nature and present in small charcoal drawings the outlines they had discovered. A second step was to identify and recreate value, that is, the lightness or darkness of those shapes. His goal was for his students to see how many different nuances of value they could identify from absolute white to complete black. A third element was texture. Campanella wanted to see how his students would translate the variety of textures they saw, again limited only to charcoal on paper. Next, what lines did they see and how could line, independent of form, be incorporated into their visual translations? The fifth and final element in the Campanella method was color. Here again, the tools of painting were limited, just as the tools of drawing had been circumscribed to only charcoal on paper.

This final element was of particular importance. Campanella had carefully studied the color palette of Rembrandt and the early Analytical Cubist works of Picasso. Through his examination he realized that both artists had consciously limited themselves to a palette of black, white, burnt sienna, and yellow ochre. Campanella’s students were taught to look at nature from the context of coolness or warmness of color and to then translate this sensation using this limited palette.

This straight-forward method was designed to direct students how to see nature and from there to see and understand art. These principles of form explain how Campanella was able to influence generations of students. His studio was always open to all, and he was particularly pleased that his teaching method produced amazing results among all of his students, especially non-majors. A measure of the effect of Campanella as a teacher is the accomplishments of his former student, and now internationally known artist, Robert Morris, who openly credits Campanella for his influence on his art.

Campanella’s aesthetic message to his students was so important to him that during the years he taught he did very little painting himself. So consumed with the progress and success of his students, Campanella’s process of teaching art became the surrogate for the act itself during school terms. It would only be in the summer months in Maine when Vincent Campanella would rediscover his own abstraction in nature.

*Vincent Campanella. Personal Interview with Dr. Burton Dunbar, October 15, 1998. Video cassette.

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