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Before he got accepted to the nation’s first HBCU, Amir Campbell didn’t really place a great deal of value on a college education.
“It was something that just wasn’t on my radar. My heart was not set on college,” says Campbell, whose mother is a Cheyney graduate and whose father, Curt Campbell, is a vocalist who performed with the 1980s group Mission.
“I applied to two colleges, Ursinus and Cheyney,” he says. “Cheyney accepted me. In 2000, I went to the summer orientation program and it was at that time that I realized Cheyney was the place for me. I sensed I would find my purpose there.”
When he started taking classes in the fall of 2000, Campbell’s original major was psychology. But after a talk with his father, he decided to broaden his education.
“My dad said, ‘Do something that you love.’ That got me thinking; I was always pretty good at drawing, so I signed up for some art classes. It was during the Winter Gala that things came into focus for me. My teacher, Dr. Marietta Dantonio-Madsen, asked me to do a piece and to do it really big. I shocked myself.”
In 2001, he was part of the university’s delegation that traveled to Durban, South Africa, to participate in the World Conference Against Racism. Campbell received a bachelor of fine arts and a bachelor of arts in communication arts from Cheyney University in 2008. He spent 10 years as a full-time teacher at the Computer Kids Learning Center, a part-time art instructor at St. Mary’s Villa for Children and a teacher’s assistant at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Dr. Madsen, Professor Joel Keener and Professor Helena Dominic brought new life to the university’s art department. They’re wonderful people and I honestly didn’t want to leave Cheyney, I enjoyed it so much,” he says. “So I stayed an additional four years. I even picked up another major so I could stay there. I have no regrets about it either. I also made the dean’s list almost every semester I was there and created pieces for multiple celebrities that came to Cheyney to speak.”
Dr. Dantonio-Madsen said she could see right away that Campbell had great potential.
“I met Amir in 2000 when he was 17 in an Elements of Art class. Watching him draw, I could see his potential as an undeveloped artist waiting to blossom,” she said.
Dr. Dantonio-Madsen started a non-profit called Totem Rhythms, where the artists created totem poles with indigenous people. Amir joined the non-profit and created the very first totem pole in the mountains of Pennsylvania.
Dr. Dantonio-Madsen continued, “We then traveled to Durban, South Africa, with the United Nations for the World Conference against Racism, Bias, and Stigma. For the next 21 years, Amir had volunteered on many Cheyney outreach projects assisting with our students. It’s been an honor for me to be part of his life’s journey.”
Campbell has been commissioned to create drawings and paintings of several prominent figures in entertainment, the arts and politics: Spike Lee, Jamie Foxx, musician Ahmir “Questlove” Thompson, former U.S. Rep. Curt Weldon and former Pennsylvania Gov. Ed Rendell. More recently, he was commissioned by South Street Headhouse in Philadelphia to paint a mural at 226 South St., depicting the social unrest following the police killing of George Floyd during the summer of 2020.
“I believe that art is supposed to bring healing, that it is supposed to shine light into darkness,” he says. “Last year, I saw the protests, most of which were peaceful, and the police response when violence erupted. To me, racism is the original pandemic. Like the coronavirus pandemic, our society needs to build up an immunity to that. I believe art is the medicine to help us do that. Art is like a vaccine; it’s medicine. That’s why I did Love Bubbles, a painting of a young girl blowing bubbles that spell out ‘love.’”
Campbell says that Dr. Dantonio-Madsen, chair of the Department of Fine Arts, Design and Liberal Studies at Cheyney, encouraged him to apply to the University of Delaware, where he is now pursuing a master of fine arts degree.
“My dad pointed me into the direction of the arts, but going to Cheyney really gave me focus and motivation,” he says. “At Cheyney University I was more than just a student. I was like their child; they molded and shaped me. They helped me refine my artistic vision. I already had talent but Cheyney gave me purpose.”