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The Forgotten Faces of Shirley Aley Campbell

Shirley Aley Campbell with "Ciao" [courtesy: Artists Archives of the Western Reserve]

From burlesque dancers to drag queens, Hells Angels to alcoholics, the people of Shirley Aley Campbell's portraits are the often forgotten faces of our society. 

Shirley Aley Campbell "Hells Angels, Los Angeles" [courtesy: ARTneo]

Last week, the Cleveland-Arts-Prize-winning artist passed away at the age of 93. 

Shirley Aley Campbell [photo: Herb Ascherman ascherman.com]

Born in Cleveland in 1925, Aley Campbell began drawing at two years old and entered the Cleveland Museum of Art's gifted program when she was 12.

"That was the greatest thing in my life.  I met the most wonderful teacher I ever had - Milton J. Fox.  He really changed my whole life.  He gave me ideas about the future and what to do with my life," Aley Campbell said.

Shirley Aley Campbell "The Pool" [courtesy: Wolfs Gallery]

Aley Campbell went on to study at the Cleveland Institute of Art with the likes of Paul Travis of the famed "Cleveland School."

Painting portraits of people like prostitutes and strippers gave her a different perspective on life that she tried to reflect in her art.

Shirley Aley Campbell "Tuesday at McCormicks" 1993 [courtesy: Artists Archives of the Western Reserve]

"You learn so much from these people.  They're just people, and people don't realize that they're human beings," she said.

At first her realistic portraits of the downtrodden were not well received.

Shirley Aley Campbell "Requiem for Dominic" 1957 [courtesy: The Cleveland Museum of Art]

"They didn't like it, they were appalled. Some of them said, 'tsk tsk, that's a terrible thing to do.' But I paint social scenes, and I've always done that," she said.

One painting stood out for her: "Pumpkin," from her "Derelict Series," created from a trip in California where she traveled with vice cops.

Shirley Aley Campell "Pumpkin" c. 1977 [courtesy: private collection]

"One of the prostitutes standing on the corner, her name was Pumpkin.  She got into the car, I sketched her and the last thing I saw was her looking into my window.  That's the painting I did.  I must've felt some sympathy for her because she had a very worn and torn fox fur on, and I didn't show it that much.  The only thing I showed were the tears in her eyes and the peeled nail polish on her nails," she said.

Listen to Dee Perry's entire interview with Shirley Aley Campbell from 2011:


Remembering the late Shirley Aley Campbell whose work is preserved at @clevelandmuseumofart @wolfsgallery @artneomuseum & @artistsarchives http://bit.ly/2Ppn3D9

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Painter - Shirley Aley Campbell from Cleveland Arts Prize on Vimeo.

Dave DeOreo is coordinating producer for Ideastream Public Media’s arts and culture team.