Shirley Aley Campbell, a recipient of the Cleveland Arts Prize in 1986, passionately records the human figure and its social context. Campbell is considered 'Cleveland’s own artistic blend of Alice Neel and Lucien Freud.' Since the beginning of her career in the 1940s, her style has changed from figurative expressionism to total abstraction, and since the 1970s, from hard-edged realism toward a freer, more painterly realism—sometimes incorporating collage elements. The constant feature of her art has been superb drawing skills and commitment to life drawing. She acknowledges:
“I’m constantly mesmerized by the human form, its line, shape, form, and volume—every facet fascinates me. And to enter form compositionally into the picture format and make every negative and positive area accountable is what drives me to turn out one painting after another—and will drive me until I die.”
Campbell’s art explores the vast range of the human condition. She paints strippers, celebrities, hookers, politicians, bullfighters, burlesque queens, alcoholics, and motorcyclists. Pursuing her subjects with the intensity of a reporter, she travels to observe people performing daily tasks in familiar surroundings, interviews them, and fills page after page with sketches. Despite the obvious opportunity for social or political commentary, she focuses on the common humanity of her subjects and presents each with individual compassion.
“One travels in painting towards a state of freedom where certain things can happen, unaccountably the unknown and free must appear. Anxieties persist in my paintings and I am suspended between the order I see and an apprehension that everything must, and does move. I like to reflect on distances, gravity and positions of essential forms. There are so many things in my world to perceive from the tangible to the intangible, back to the future links of the tangible. I want to see and perceive accurately and innately my future painting pursuits.”
A Cleveland native, Campbell graduated from the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1947, winning the Agnes Gund Scholarship the same year. Afterwards, she studied in New York at the Art Students League and Pratt Institute. After graduating, Campbell studied privately with Emmy Zweybruck in Estes Park, Colorado.
She has taught at the Cleveland Institute of Art and Cooper School of Art and is professor emerita at Cuyahoga Community College. Campbell uses several different mediums, including chalk, charcoal, pen, and ink. Her work has been featured in 36 solo exhibitions in this country and abroad.
She is represented in the permanent collections of the Cleveland Museum of Art, the Evanston Art Center, the Kansas City Art Institute, the Canton Museum of Art, the Butler Institute of American Art, plus numerous private collections. She won first place awards at the Cleveland Museum of Art’s May Show in 1957, 1958 and 1960. Her works were featured in a solo exhibition in New York in 1967, and in 1981 she received an arts award in Birmingham, England. Campbell was honored as a Distinguished Alumna at the Cleveland Institute of Art in 1978 and exhibited in The Spirit of Cleveland at the Cleveland Institute of Art, which featured recipients of the Cleveland Arts Prize.
Her life and art are document in Elizabeth McClelland’s, The Art of Shirley Campbell, a book in the Ohio Artists Now series.
Campbell died on August 13, 2018.