Deep Ellum Artist Frank Campagna On The Intersection Of Music and Visual Art in Dallas

Welcome to Local Music'Mericans, where we meet the people in the local music scene that you don't see on stages.

Frank Campagna's first mural, painted at age 16, was a 9-foot-by-12-foot rendering of a clown wearing a police uniform, sporting a badge that said "pig," and all in front of a 13-star American flag bearing a pot leaf.


While the mural wasn't touting a band, it was definitely the formal birthing of one of our local music scenes' most unique, individualistic and passionate supporters. 

That first mural of Campagna's was for a sports event at his high school. Obviously, the institution reacted with a need for changes to be made to the mural before the event, and, as Campagna puts it, "it had made a small impact. One for doing it, the other for being censored."

So how does this figure into our local music scene? Campagna, for one, argues that the scenes are the same.

For many years, Campagna's murals graced (among many other places around the neighborhood) the side of the now-defunct Gypsy Tea Room. The murals are, indeed, gone these days, but these and his other various works of art continue to provide a crucial contribution to the heartbeat of our downtown culture scene.

From his humble childhood beginnings (his first exposure to music came when his parents bought a handful of pop records as a form of therapy for his hearing-impaired brother) to his first time in an art museum (his folks saw it as an inexpensive to-do for the family when they tagged along on Dad's work trips), his talents and contributions couldn't be owed up more to childhood circumstance. It would seem, as one listens to his story of childhood, that his parents had the most innocent and simple of intentions with art and music culture -- but they unknowingly helped craft one of Deep Ellum's most powerful creative forces and inspirations as they raised him.

His is an interesting story -- one that goes far beyond his role at Kettle Art and in Deep Ellum's art scene in general, and beyond his role as father to the late, sorely-missed Frankie 45, born Frank Campagna, Jr. There's so much more to it, and it's damn interesting. See for yourself after the jump. 

Many of us know you from your years immersed in Deep Ellum's music and art, dating back to the earliest periods of the neighborhood being what it is today. Tell us about the very young Frank, and what he saw and heard first that inspired him.
As a kid, my little brother was hard of hearing. For my folks to determine the degree of his deafness, his speech therapist suggested they buy some records. My folks didn't really have much time or money for entertainment, so the extent of music appreciation ended just prior to rock 'n' roll. When my mom went to the record store, she came home with several Top 40 records. Y'know, early Beatles and Stones 45s like "Can't Buy Me Love" and "Mother's Little Helper." This was my earliest recollection of holding pop culture in my hands. On the visual side of things, when my Dad would travel for business during the summer, we'd go along with him to make a mini-vacation out of it. Art Museums were always inexpensive cultural experiences. When I was about seven, they took me to see the final, full-on exhibit of Van Gogh's works before they went to their permanent home in Amsterdam. The crowd was at least ten deep, all pushing towards the art. I was eye-level with the barricade ropes, getting more than an eyeful of all his colorful techniques and brushstrokes. Later, when I understood that this guy was long-gone dead and buried and could still cause this kind of chaos, I was of course I intrigued to learn more.

And you carried forth a lot of piss and vinegar as you aspired to find your own outlet of expression?
By the time I was 12, I had studied a lot about art. I loved all the masters, and got exposed to pop art. It was at the Trenton Museum of Art, which was kind of like the Contemporary or the MAC here in Dallas, and they were breaking new, living artists such as Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Johns. My art instructor was into painting landscapes with barns, ponds, ducks and whatnot. This new approach I brought back to class immediately turned my grades from A's into F's overnight, so I knew I was onto something. I have always been fascinated by pandemonium and/or anarchy, beginning with the movements of rock 'n' roll and pop art.

What plans of action did you plot out to further educate yourself, and more importantly, what were your ideas for getting your first art expressions out there?
At first, I spent a lot of time gathering inspiration in the form of psychedelic posters and music of all sorts, and doing what I could to recreate them as a learning process with whatever I had available. I honestly did not know if I was going to be a musician or a visual guy -- just because they all seemed to interact as parts of a greater whole. My mother was a film and Broadway actress, and my uncle was a dancer. She quit before I was born because my dad won her away and in turn she gave him a goal of becoming a better man. My uncle and aunt still dance to this day, but, as a kid, I once saw them as they headlined at Radio City Music Hall in NYC, and I had no idea they were so good until their posters were all over the subways and buses. It blew my mind, but, more important, this just furthered the notion that all art forms and artists are one in the same despite the medium they choose to work with. 

In my eyes everybody is an artist. Unfortunately, most lose touch with that side of their being once it's time to "grow up." In my perfect world, each would get one No. 1 impact on society to collect royalties from as a base pay to go out and play in other mediums or with other artists.

Anyway, by the time I hit 16 or so, I was using up all the available art supplies after school, and catching the latest bus home I could get. I was failing in nearly all other classes, but my art teacher would write me excuse notes saying I was working on posters for "Sports Night" or pep tallies or whatever at the school. My first public mural was, like, nine-foot-by-12-foot and featured a clown dressed as a policeman. His badge read "Pig," and in the background was a 13-starred American flag, with a marijuana leaf centered in the stars. Talk about an uproar from the school -- and for "Sports Night"? Needless to say some changes were in order before the event, but it had made a small impact. One for doing it, the other for being censored.

Not long after, some friends of mine who were a few years older and had a prog-rock band called Reign won some battle of the bands in Philadelphia and were the second to get signed to Led Zeppelin's Swan Song Records -- Bad Company being the first. When they went to Electric Ladyland Studios in New York City for pre-production, one of the guys decided the night before to party too much, which made him late in the morning, which cancelled the contract, and cost all the other guys in the band any other musical aspirations from then on. What this did for me was help me realize that, if anyone is going to screw me over, it's going to be me. And, from that point forward, I focused on visual art.

One thing I love is how many members of the music scene people will see hanging out at art shows. It's very pleasing to see those two scenes mesh together in a modern setting. Where do you suppose things started to change to somehow peel art and music apart more than they were, say, 30 years ago?
I don't think anything has peeled apart at all. If anything, it's more unified than ever. You see a show advertised, that's art; you see the show again, it's art; after the show, you see the photos and/or videos from a show, and, again, that's art. Art is expression captured in a viable form to share. You can argue that conceptual art is valid as well, as it's captured in memory and can be shared in spoken words. But I don't want to go there right now.

Do you feel that modern additions to art and music culture are more distraction than benefit?
I really wish that all the communication and documentation that we have at our fingertips was available 30 years ago. Problem is, more often than not, Facebook is drivel like, "I got up this morning and my cat shit in my shoe." Documentation tends to be the key to culture. Now that everyone has this ability, it's up to us to sort it out.

To just say that you're an advocate of the local music scene seems inadequate. Who are a few now-defunct bands from Deep Ellum that you miss and really feel like they never got their fair shot to take over the world?
The Nervebreakers are always the first to come to mind because they were so close in so many ways in the late-'70s and early-'80's. The Staggers used to kill just a few years ago as well. Naturally, I'd say Spector 45 because they brought authentic American rock 'n' roll music, with guitar, bass and drums up to date. Due to unforeseen circumstances that will never come to pass.

How about all-time-greatest local bands that have supported the Deep Ellum visual art scene?
The band Quad Pi played my first one-man show in Deep Ellum in 1981. We always had artistic appreciation for each other, even to this day. Still-active members today include DJ Mr. Rid and JP from the Kitchen Studios. There are plenty of cross-over artists that are equally great in both music and art, but there are so many it's difficult to mention one without leaving dozens out. They know who they are, and they're always welcome at Kettle.

When you did "music murals" for the walls of Gypsy Tea Room, was it always part of the preparation process to thoroughly absorb a band's songs? As much of a music aficionado as you are, surely there were some artists whose music you hadn't heard before. Is that an important step in interpreting them with paint? Or do you find that sometimes shooting from the hip and trusting your gut seemed to have its magic as well?
Painting Gypsy was a blast. The club would give me a name and date and 100 percent artistic freedom. The list of upcoming bands was always changing, so it was difficult to keep up, but I've found it's really best to catch them on the way up, while they're still "hungry." Before painting, I would do some research and get off on some of them, but it worked best to read their name and see what came to mind in a word-association manner. I used to love getting up in the morning, reading a name, thinking about what it brought to mind, dropping by the paint store and having an unexpected finished product by day's end. In a way, it was very much like William S. Burroughs cutting up newspapers to come up with stories, or Brian Eno's "Oblique Strategies" card-game method of songwriting.

I can't tell you how pleased I've been with the vibe of the Deep Ellum Arts Festival. Since going for the first time a few years ago, I haven't missed one since. Your feelings on the event? Critiques?
The Art festival is always too much fun, much like urban camping for three days. Now that the Deep Ellum Community Association has become heavily involved pulling actual neighborhood businesses into it, it's much more Deep Ellum, and a lot less a traveling arts and crafts fair. In the past five years, the area has succeeded in banding together better than each year before, putting forth a unified front that something is happening here. Now, if all those attendees would drop in more often, they'd see that this is true more than once a year.

Where do you see our music and arts community headed?
Deep Ellum has been our cultural hot bed for well over 100 years, and it's still running strong. Oak Cliff is in there as well, but I'm not qualified to speak on that. Ellum has always embraced those with aspirations of independence -- and never particularly mainstream. This is where you'll find the good stuff and the real deal. The hungry bands and artists. A while back, it ran its course and got run over by thugs, drunks and horny, goofy yups, much like Lower Greenville has been trying to rid itself of lately. Thank God we stepped back, reorganized and got back to its creative roots of art and music. I've found Deep Ellum to be a multiple-celled, living organism. City people and developers please take note: Much like a wild animal, it can adapt and flourish to become a beautiful force to be reckoned with. If you try to control or put it in a cage, it will die. Unfortunately, next year, the city plans to tear up the sidewalks along Elm Street and make it a two-way street for traffic. This would have been a grand idea when they replaced the sewage lines or took out the tunnel a few years back -- but with their timing of this year-and-a-half-long "improvement," all the privately-owned businesses will be financially impacted. As long as the developers are kept at bay and the city keeps it's nose out of our business, all should be fine. Overall, you can't suppress a movement or keep a good dog down.

Final thoughts? Perhaps, to aspiring artists of all kinds?
Stay strong and don't be afraid to try anything different. Chances are, it's all been done before in some manner or another -- at least until we have projectors and/or holographic capabilities on our phones. But, whatever "it" is, "it" has not been done by you. It's your personal touch that makes any effort unique. If you choose to sit on the sidelines and not do something, it's your life that's passing by. At least get out there and show some support by spreading the word. Bring your body to be in attendance, and break out your wallet once in a while. My biggest pet peeve about Dallas is that our city is always trying to be something that already exists somewhere else, instead of embracing what it has. Things seem to be changing in that regard with the new Arts District, but we need to hire from within, support what is ours and, with any luck, we'll export it elsewhere and draw the cultural and global eyes of attention towards us. Don't believe me? The sports world has proven it at least three times in the past year with the Mavs, the Rangers in World Series, the Super Bowl and even the NBA All-Star game. We've got that shit down. Now, it's up to the many fine venues and artists to rise up, act as ambassadors, not forget to pay it forward and take us all to a higher level.