The Brauer Museum at Valparaiso University has been celebrating Martin Luther King Jr Day and Black History Month with a special exhibit titled “Celebrating Black Artists.” Many of the pieces come from the private collection of the University’s own Michael Chikeleze, Ph.D., Richard C. and Francelia A. Gozon University Chair in Values-Based Leadership. Four of the pieces donated by Professor Chikeleze come from the works of artist Danny Campbell, Ed.D., currently an adjunct professor at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and former interim Associate Dean of UAPB’s School of Arts and Sciences. Dr. Campbell visited Valpo on February 22, 2023, to show and discuss his art and life.
“The visual medium is my greatest way to express an idea or concept,” Professor Campbell says. “If I were a writer, I’d write a book. If I were a singer, I would write a song. If I were a musician, I would play an instrument. But as an artist, the only way I can tell my story is to encapsulate an image by using those art tools to portray what I feel inside.”
The pieces on display at the Brauer represent three series of work, which Professor Campbell labels “chapters:” abstract expressionism, soul and gospel, and “My Search for Identity: To Know Thyself,” which dives into Professor Campbell’s family’s history.
“When I was a student at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, I went home one weekend,” Professor Campbell recalls. “My mom said she wanted to show me something. She asked me to go up into the attic and grab this box. She opened up, and there was this black and white photograph.”
The photograph showed 13 people, including his great-great-grandparents, great-aunts, great-uncles, and cousins of varying degrees.
“They were slaves in Arkansas on the plantation,” Professor Campbell says. “This was the first time I heard this. She went down the line and named all the people in the photograph. Finally, she got down to an image of a mixed child. She paused. She said, ‘this is your aunt so-and-so’s so-and-so, and all her family members live in Milwaukee.” She said this particular child was an outcast because she was biracial. It was the master’s child of my great-great-grandmother.’ That was shocking news to me.”
Professor Campbell was determined to know more about who he was as a person, and his chapter of work titled “My Search for Identity” was born of that determination.
Meanwhile, listening to Gospel, blues, and Soul music sparked a series of quick reference drawings that translated Professor Campbell’s music into a visual sensation.
“It was a straightforward task because I grew up in the Arkansas Delta, near the Mississippi River,” Professor Campbell says. “And near the Mississippi, the Blues was born. Gospel was born. So, in my house, we were used to listening to music and gospel and blues on the weekend. That was my easiest way to express myself: listening to music, encapsulating what I heard, and making a visual image for the viewer.”
Professor Campbell’s work in abstract expressionism was also a form of bringing his inner experiences to life. During the COVID-19 pandemic, he lost his mother and father in 10 months. The loss, coupled with the restrictions of the pandemic, forced Professor Campbell to pursue a new kind of expression.
“That was my way out. Normally I would have to go outside because I’m a recycling artist. I find objects in my surroundings, but I couldn’t do that. I couldn’t be outside,” Professor Campbell says. “So I had to find a way to create and keep my mind going despite those things that happened to me.”
While visiting Valpo and discussing his artwork, Professor Campbell delivered a public lecture on African American artists, vocations and careers as an artist, and art collection. Underlying the entire event was his dedication to the idea of progress.
“I wanted people, when they left the presentation, to have a sensibility that they and we must keep moving,” he says. “Nothing is at a standstill. We must keep driving. We must keep thriving to survive.”
Dr. Campbell also discussed how Valparaiso University and other institutions could help further promote African American art in higher education and the broader public consciousness.
“We need to have more diversity,” he says. “More multicultural events and functions. Not just here but at every institution. There needs to be more of a conglomerate, the inter-marital relationship among departments. I see engagement from leaders, departments, science, math, engineering, and all those components coming together here. It is a good and healthy thing to have those things coming together. That is what sustains a university.”
As a professor and passionate educator, Professor Campbell also had advice for the art students he spoke with during his visit.
“I’ve told each of them that they must find their vision,” he says. “They must find their vocabulary. They have to create that because there’s only one of you. You are an original, and what you bring to the table as an artist is powerful and what you bring can change and transform the world. It can change and transform people, and that’s what artists do. We give people a different perspective on life.”
The “Celebrating Black Artists” exhibit will remain on exhibition until April 9. For more information, visit valpo.edu/brauer-museum-of-