WEST ORANGE, NJ — A noted artist urged Redwood Elementary School students to find their passion and share it with the world during a Feb. 4 visit for Black History Month.
Leroy Campbell, who has become known for his silhouette paintings, told the young students gathered in the library media center that everyone has a passion, whether they know it yet or not. Though he always liked to draw, Campbell said he did not even realize that art was his passion until after he had worked for years in the health care field. But once he recognized that it was what he wanted to do with his life, he said he felt “happy and free.”
Just as importantly, the paintings he created made others happy, and he said passions should always be used to help others.
“Your passion is not a selfish thing,” Campbell said to the students. “Your passion does not just belong to you. Passions are gifts that come to you naturally.
“Gifts are supposed to be given,” he continued. “Gifts make other people feel better and feel good.”
While sharing their own passions, Campbell told the children that they should also inspire others to use their gifts — no matter how different those people may be. As a boy, he recalled that he would sometimes be teased for having a deformed left hand, but art always made him feel better. So the next time the students see someone looking upset or left out, he reminded them that they should always be friendly because that person likely has exceptional gifts to offer.
“We always want to encourage the person who has something different from you to be better and be good and to use (their passion) for good,” Campbell said. “You never know when they might be in the world making a difference.”
Campbell certainly proved to be a hit among the children, frequently making them laugh and answering their questions. Afterward, he stopped by the second-grade class taught by Kimya Jackson — who had invited the renowned artist to speak at Redwood — to talk more about his art with the students and be interviewed by Evan Kerr, the boy who will portray Campbell during the second graders’ Black History Month presentation Feb. 22.
To top it off, Campbell had the opportunity to see the students’ own artwork done in his style, which he found particularly enjoyable.
“I almost fainted — I just loved, loved, loved, loved it,” Campbell, who, after donating his art book to the school, was presented with one student’s framed piece of art, told the West Orange Chronicle prior to his speech. “As a matter of fact, they gave me some concepts I might steal! They took it to another level. It was touching. It feels powerful. It feels like this path that I was chosen to be on is the right path to be on because it’s touching someone else. It feels like what I do matters.”
But while the experience was a joyous one for all involved, the artist said he hopes the children do take to heart his serious message of benefiting others, and apply it to their own lives moving forward.
“I want them to know that people are interconnected,” Campbell said. “If they understand this sense of interconnection, then they become part of contributing to a good thing of balance in life. When you feel interconnected, that means you look out for each other and you work together stronger. And when you work together stronger, you accomplish more.”
Jackson said she believes her students connected with Campbell, and that it is easier for children to relate to people they meet instead of just learning about them in class. This is why she asked Campbell — whom she called her favorite artist because each of his paintings has a powerful meaning — to speak at Redwood and to meet Evan. Jackson also introduced artist Visa Butler to another of her students, who interviewed her at Morristown’s Arts in the Atrium gallery in preparation for playing her at the Black History Month presentation.
The second-grade teacher said she thinks her class did learn a lot from their guest, asking him thought-provoking questions, such as what some of his signature motifs symbolize and what exactly fine art is. And Jackson did not coach the students on their questions, she pointed out proudly. She said they came up with them on their own after being so intrigued by learning about Campbell and his art in the days leading up to the reception.
No matter what their individual questions were, Jackson said she wants all the students to take away one specific message.
“They can be anything they want to be,” Jackson told the Chronicle after the event. “Anything is possible.”
Redwood Principal Bruce Arcurio and assistant Principal Ana Marti agreed that the event was an uplifting one, with Marti calling it simply “extraordinary.” Like Jackson, Arcurio said he hopes the children come away with the idea that they should not focus on their limitations when pursuing their dreams. Campbell is a prime example of that, he said, because the artist triumphed over adversity to get to where he is today.
Of course, Campbell could not have presented that lesson had Jackson not taken the initiative to organize the event. This is not the first time the second-grade teacher done so; Marti said Jackson has invited other guests to speak and she also holds Saturday field trips for her students and their parents. That all just shows the type of educator she is, Arcurio said.
“Having teachers like Ms. Jackson who are willing to go to the lengths to bring someone like Mr. Campbell in to talk to our kids really shows the dedication of our staff,” Arcurio told the Chronicle following the reception. “She’s someone who really cares about the experiences she brings to her children.”