“I think [art] affects the way I think. . . As an artist, I discovered that art is more powerful because you just have to see it, and not necessarily spark up a conversation. I love art because it is really powerful.”
— Cornelio Campos
Cornelio Campos was born in August 1971. Originally from an indigenous Mexican group know as the Tarascos, in the northern state of Michoacán, Cornelio Campos first became interested in art at the age of eight, when he would try to imitate the drawings in comic books. A local artist inspired him to pursue art; this painter had left his town to go study art, and when he returned he would give the local children art lessons. This painter focused on the culture of the Tarascos, painting scenes like a woman selling fruit or flowers, or images of local crafts. He had a tremendous impact on Mr. Campos; he is the reason, for instance, that Mr. Campos currently focuses much of his work on the Tarascos culture. Many of his friends and family supported and motivated Mr. Campos to continue painting. He considers himself lucky to be an artist in the United States.
“In Mexico, if you don’t have any education, it is hard to get into the artist’s world. I am pretty lucky to be a self-taught artist in this country.”
Once Mr. Campos finished high school, he decided to travel the United States. His father was in construction work, and his mother stayed at home to raise him and his siblings. He had nine siblings, so continuing his education was not an option. Given that he had family in the United States, he felt that immigrating was his only option.
Growing up, his town had a history of citizens immigrating to the United States. People would often discuss the positive side of immigrating, but they would disregard the struggles. His brothers and sisters, as well as his parents, were able to acquire passports to immigrate legally, so he felt like his family could not fully understand what he had to undergo. He came to the United States under difficult circumstances. He remained in Los Angeles for a few years where did not have to do much work; therefore he focused solely on his paintings. He did commission work for local lawyers, and the lawyers began to spread the word that he was a painter. As he painted more pieces on commission, he was able to earn money to support himself.
His grandfather had immigrated to the United States in the 1980s and eventually settled in Los Angeles. Mr. Campos felt comfortable in Los Angeles, where he was surrounded by his relatives. After two years, he moved to North Carolina, because his cousin was living and working there. Since he had this connection, he was able to settle there. He got a job as a farmworker to provide for himself. At that point, all of his time and energy was invested in his work and he went ten years without painting. It was during that time when he was faced with a lot of hardships, but eventually his emotions were channeled into his paintings. During that time, Mr. Campos went through a divorce, his siblings went back to Mexico, and his uncle came to the United States but died shortly after arriving. He felt lonely most of all, so it was a really hard time for him. His emotions became a major source of his inspiration. After the ten year period of unhappiness, he began to find joy again because he was able to paint. He was able to start painting because he began taken English classes in Durham where he met his future wife. As a result of the marriage, he became a legal citizen. He had more options to consider when looking for a job. At this point, he decided to become an electrician.
“I was very unhappy. I was doing things and I felt like I was missing something. When I reached a point where I could paint again, it was really joyful.”
When he was able to find a better job and a studio to paint, he felt like he could restart his painting journey. He reached a more financially stable point in his life once he found a job as an electrician. His style as an artist changed dramatically at that point. His struggles in life made him a stronger artist. He states, “I got to a point where I got depressed, so it was a healing process when I started to paint. I was trying to find myself.” Before he went through the ten years without painting, he had mainly focused on landscapes, though he also painted the things around him. After the ten year period, he had a new focus and purpose for his art. It is easy to say that he is successful because his work has been put into several exhibits, but his success truly began when he started painting for a purpose much greater than himself. He had a voice that was yearning to reach the ears of people all across the nation.
Life as an Artist:
Mr. Campos focuses on three main themes: political issues including immigration, Mexican folklore (with an emphasis on the culture of Michoacán), and anthropological symbols from Mexican ethnic groups. The indigenous group to which Cornelio belonged were the Tarascos in Mexico. They were the only group that the Aztecs had no sovereignty over, even though they were geographically close. Cornelio uses the group as a source of inspiration and introspection because he is returning to his roots. He also communicates the realities of immigration in his paintings. His paintings capture his own experience and his struggles while crossing the border; consequently, they allow people who have been through similar experiences to relate to his journey. He enjoys being able to start conversations with his art, and that in return gives him motivation to continue.
“I’m trying to show younger generations that they don’t have to feel ashamed about where they come from. We all come from different places and they are all beautiful. They all have good things and bad things.”
When Cornelio Campos exhibited his immigration painting “Realidad Norteña,” he received praise, but also criticism. After an anti-immigration organization condemned the painting, he realized that if art has that much power to affect people, he should use the negativity as fuel to persevere. His paintings have been shown in several different galleries and exhibitions including the Campus Y on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus. He also had exhibits at Duke University, N.C. State, and the Museum of American Indian Art.