Local Artists Throw a Group Show to Honor Frank Campagna, the Gallerist Who Nurtured Them

"Portrait of Frank Campagna" by Joe Skillz
"Portrait of Frank Campagna" by Joe Skillz
Joe Skillz

Kettle Art is a clubhouse for artists, and artists really need a clubhouse, especially in moments of self-doubt. Artist and Kettle Art owner Frank Campagna has provided that nurturing space in Deep Ellum, and now the dozens of artists he has given a platform to since the gallery opened in 2005 are honoring him with Savages, a huge group show that acts as a sort of love letter to Campagna. The show is on view through July 16.

Early in Campagna's career, artists Dan Hitchcock and David McCullough showed him the ropes. Campagna is keenly aware of how vital their guidance was to his continued art-making. He says it's easy for young artists to slip through the cracks, and he wants to offer the same helping hand that was extended to him when he was starting out. Emerging artists routinely bring portfolios by the gallery, and when Campagna sees promise he tells them to come to the next show to meet other artists for feedback and advice. “I’d rather have an artist with great potential than one who knows they are there and has an ego,” Campagna says. “Check your ego at the door.”

Campagna grew up with the belief that all arts are interrelated. His mother was an actress who appeared in a 1950s women-in-prison movie called So Young, So Bad. His aunt and uncle are professional dancers who played Radio City Music Hall years ago, which put their faces on buses and subways.

In addition to painting, in the late ’70s and ’80s, Campagna made fliers for local promoters and then started booking his own shows in Deep Ellum. “I was the only rock 'n' roll art promoter in town,” Campagna says. He was known mainly as a punk rock promoter and counts passing on R.E.M. among the biggest mistakes of his career. Gradually, the concerts started affecting his art shows.

Beyond his hope that Kettle Art would help him establish financial security as an artist, Campagna hoped it would meet a demand he perceived for a more lively, less fussy gallery than others around town. “Art shows used to be really boring,” Campagna says. “My goal when I opened Kettle was to knock out the cobwebs, loosen it up and make it more casual.” More than a decade later, dozens of Dallas artists will confirm that it has more than fulfilled that mission.

Judith Perkins was one of the first people Campagna spoke with before opening Kettle Art. “Kettle is for beginning and emerging artists,” Perkins says. “It’s a really good cycle that helps build confidence, which makes art better.” Perkins has three pieces in Savages. They're graphic works on birch panels; one of a geometric rose.

Richard Ross has known Campagna for a decade. The two met on MySpace. “He encourages me to not drop off like I did for a couple years,” Ross says. The self-taught painter who depicts playful, almost childlike symbolist figures brought some of his work to Kettle Art and Campagna decided to include it in the show he was setting up for that night. A few hours later, Campagna called asking Ross to bring more art because everything had sold.

“Frank’s there for you when you need him,” Ross says. He remembers being aware of Campagna long before he met him, when he was finding his artistic voice in Dallas’ early hardcore punk scene. “Most of the punk shows were in backyards or apartment complexes. Frank opened his art studio and made it a club. He gave the punks a spot and he’s been that way ever since.”

Izk Davies met Campagna painting murals. He has shown his work at Kettle Art and even curated some shows. “I don’t really show in the gallery world,” Davis says. “I mostly do public and commissioned art. But when I do show he is my top pick. I don’t do it as much as I should. He actually encourages me to show more often.

“It was only natural that my generation came to respect him and hold him in high regard,” Davies continues. “He definitely earned his stripes. Savages is a real good reunion for artists to check out each other’s newest work and also to see the variety of people who consider him in the same regard.”

Cathey Miller, who contributed paintings of fictional female characters and athletes in outer space, also remembers meeting Campagna shortly before he opened his gallery. “Over the years, some of my personal work has been a little too challenging or off-color; I’m not sure what it was," she says. "At some point, he and Kirk Hopper were running Kettle and they gave me the whole gallery and let me do whatever I wanted. The confidence they showed in me was very freeing.

“For me, Frank’s the sweetest curmudgeon,” Miller says. “I appreciate that quality. The art world is exhausting, but with Frank there’s no bullshit.”

Sergio Garcia met Campagna painting murals. Garcia has a background in graffiti and Campagna was shocked that he had never made a painting. “Frank is kind of how I got into doing art,” Garcia says. “Up until then I just did murals. I helped introduce him to spray-paint, but he was pretty much responsible for me doing my first painting. I started showing at the Kettle.

“Frank never gave in,” Garcia says. “A lot of people threw in the towel. They were artists for a while and now they’re at a cubicle. He stuck to his guns and I give him a lot of credit for that. A lot of people can only do it for so long. He’s inspired me to think you can do this. A lot of people think you can’t.”

See Savages at Kettle Art, 2650 Main St., through July 16.

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