Imagine for a moment that you could step back in time and observe the expressions and emotions felt by the battle-weary Texians as they witness 100 dragoons coming over the hill during the 1835 “Come and Take It” incident that sparked the Texas Revolution. Visualize the bold rebelliousness in their eyes, positioned with weapons at the ready and a stance of dogged determination. This image is what Texas sculptor Craig Campobella was able to bring to life in his latest bronze rendering, “Defiance,” after hundreds of hours of extensive research and meticulous attention to even the smallest detail. And it’s only one of the many sculptures he has created over the past three decades.
Although his work primarily focuses on historical figures and roots music icons, his talents are also commissioned to commemorate heroes from all walks of life, as in the bust of Dr. “Red” Duke, a piece commissioned by Memorial Hermann-Texas Medical Center for Memorial Hermann Red Duke Trauma Institute in Houston.
Campobella’s work graces the homes and businesses of art collectors, historians, average-Joes and celebrities. His creations can be found both nationally and internationally, including the countries of Norway, Australia and France.
…Speaking of collectors
“Defiance” was commissioned by Dave Roberts, best-selling author and founder of Telegistics. The 350-pound multi-figure bronze is the first in a limited edition of five, three of which have sold. It was unveiled on April 21 at Conroe’s Spirit of Texas Bank.
Roberts, who owns several pieces, has also commissioned an upcoming likeness of his grandfather, WWII Sergeant Thomas Nicholson, which will be named “The Hero of Kaltenhaus.”
Rare is the friendship that is formed during a first encounter and grows more solid as time passes, but such is the case between five-time GRAMMY winner Marty Stuart and Campobella. Stuart is a huge supporter of the sculptor’s work and is also a collector. Campobella has accurately depicted Stuart’s image in “The Pilgrim,” which was “an absolute honor” for both the performer and the artist.
“I think it was a Divinely-ordered friendship,” says Stuart. “I knew from the minute I shook Craig Campobella’s hand that I was shaking hands with a friend for life. I just had that feeling.”
The two first met when Stuart played a concert in Conroe eight years ago. After passing by his studio, Stuart noticed through the window an intriguing piece that would become “The Texian.”
Stuart recalls, “I stood there and studied it for probably 20 or 35 minutes, and that’s not an exaggeration. I thought, ‘This is a master’s work that I am looking at.’”
After the show, Campobella took Stuart and his band back to the studio for a closer look and the rest, as they say, is “history.” Realizing they were both intrigued by the idea of preserving our heritage, the two quickly developed a creative simpatico that was beneficial to both men.
Stuart believes that, despite his unassuming nature, Campobella’s work “is someday going to be a part of the American vernacular.” He says, “He kinda reminds me of what Bob Dylan said about the Mona Lisa. Dylan said, ‘Well, you know she’s never had a publicist; she’s never made a record; she’s never written a song and she’s never made a movie— but everybody in the whole wide world knows her.’ I think, in spite of himself, everybody in the world is gonna know Craig Campobella.”
Music legend and three-time GRAMMY winner Delbert McClinton became a fan after seeing Campobella’s “The Knife Blade Blues,” an intricate piece depicting an itinerant farm worker playing a slide guitar while sitting on a bus bench. The sculpture was the first piece of art McClinton had ever purchased. As with Stuart, McClinton and Campobella became fast friends. “I have four of Campobella’s pieces. His attention to detail and the nuances of the physical being amaze me. I’m his biggest fan.”
A class of its own
On any given day, visitors can be seen meandering through Conroe’s Lone Star Monument and Historical Flag Park, enjoying the evidence that proves Texas has a rich, colorful history. The focal point of the park is one of Campobella’s most noted works, “The Texian,” surrounded by replicas and descriptions of the 13 battle and rally flags that flew during the Texas fight for independence.
The original idea for the park was Campobella’s, who says its design was sketched as he was going down the freeway. He adds that, in addition to preserving history through art, he wants his work to educate.
The five-year project is now appreciated by students, tourists, locals and its creator. “I can stand here and observe in anonymity—nobody knows I did anything. And the one thing I will always hear is, ‘I did not know that.’ The park is serving its purpose. It’s an educational ‘rabbit hole’— the deeper you get into it, the more interesting it becomes.”
During the winter, spring and summer of 2010, in an abandoned building with no heat or air, Craig breathed life into the 14-foot sculpture of “The Texian, which exemplifies the characteristics of our state’s original freedom Texian volunteers.
“These were some really spectacular people, the ones who made Texas. It’s really interesting to know that so many diverse people stood together against a tyrannical government and we are all recipients of their bravery,” says Campobella. “So it’s important to me that their story gets told.”
Insistent that the piece be as accurate as humanly possible, he went to extreme lengths to research his subject, using re-enactors wearing vintage attire from 1830s to discover how wool pants and jackets would react to wind and posture.
It’s his resolute insistence for accuracy that allows for the educational symbolism that has become his trademark. There are 13 rocks under “The Texian’s” left foot, signifying each day of the siege of the Alamo, with 354 marks on the stones—one mark for each of the 354 soldiers massacred at Goliad. Under the right foot are nine stones to honor the nine who died at The Battle of San Jacinto and under the right great toe is a stone to metaphorically represent the pain that Santa Anna continued to cause the new Republic, years after the battle was won. Eighteen buttons represent the 18-minute fight at San Jacinto, with one button deliberately missing on the left cuff of the jacket in order to have the correct number of minutes represented. Threads can be seen, as if the button had been lost.
The exactness and attention to detail is what Roberts admires most about the artist’s work. Referring to “Defiance,” he says, “When you can make the fringe on a Tennessean’s buckskin coat come through like that in bronze, that’s just incredible.”
This type of intricate attention to detail is woven into each of Campobella’s pieces, but it’s a rare treat when the “secrets” of a major piece are shared. He says, “I don’t want to give away too much of the symbolism. I’d rather have [the pieces] keep their ‘urban legend’ appeal. It’s more educational for people to figure it out for themselves.”
“Texas Lady Liberty” is permanently displayed at the Spirit of Texas Plaza. The piece was commissioned by Spirit of Texas Bank. This 11-foot, 23.75 Karat gold-gilded monument depicts the image seen on the San Jacinto Battle Flag and is the only one of its kind known to exist in our state. The three-dimensional bronze monument’s 6’6” travertine base, created by Texas stone artist Jose Toriello, bears an eternal flame in honor of the sacrifices made by the Republic’s forefathers. During the San Jacinto Day unveiling in 2015, it was Sam Houston IV who lit the flame in front of the hundreds who attended.
Also commissioned by the bank is “New Beginnings,” which depicts the close friendship between Texian Stephen F. Austin and Tejano Jose Antonio Navarro up to—and through— the Texas Revolution.
CEO Dean Bass is grateful for the opportunity to chronicle our state’s important historic events through Campobella’s work for the public’s enjoyment and for educational purposes. “Craig and I work very well together in trying to bring Texas history to life in a unique and special way,” says Bass. Let’s get personal
Even in the face of his ever-growing popularity, his sense of humor remains intact and he says he has no idea how many pieces his hands have created. “I don’t count them. I do know I’ve thrown three in the trash and one across the room.” Then laughs when he adds, “So I’ve only thrown four fits in 30 years. Not bad!”
“I let my finished work go; I let it be what it is going to be for the people that view it. Before I send it to the foundry I am very truthful with myself that I have given it the best I have to give. After that it’s in the viewer’s hands. It becomes what they see. Period.”
Influenced by masters like Donatello, Coppini and Michelangelo, Campobella says he immerses himself in music for inspiration while he works. If he’s sculpting a roots music icon, he listens to their work; but if he’s working on a historic interpretation, classical guitar is the soothing “white noise” that can be heard in the background.
He has no particular favorite finished piece. “They are all my children. I raised them the very best I could. Now they will become whatever they become.” Then his sense of humor comes through— “None of them come to see me. I have to go see them.”
He admits he’s never met an easy project when it comes to execution. Creating his way requires patience, planning, and discipline. He believes that an artist can imagine anything, but unless they follow through, they are only dreamers. He says, “The clay doesn’t jump up on the armature and sculpt itself. Picasso said, ‘Inspiration finds us working.’ Michelangelo slept at the feet of David, woke up and worked another 12 to 18 hours, doing this over and over again. He was repulsive, smelled bad, and was covered in marble dust and filth. But thousands of people every day file past his ‘David’ and they weep at the beauty he wrought with his filthy hands.”
But that’s not likely. Wife Cristy is the rock on which the artist leans, someone who keeps him grounded with a clear perspective. “My greatest accomplishment is seeing my wife smile. She is the most important facet of my life.”
Campobella has had an interest in figurative and representational bronze sculpture since he was a child and that passion has never waned.
He has won over 60 awards, including three Best of Show. But success and popularity are not what he considers top priority. Aside from his wife’s smile, he says “Being a strong, loving father would be another ‘greatest’ accomplishment. My friends knowing I’ve got their backs and they can count on me with the stuff that matters. That’s what it all boils down to for me, whether I’m a butcher, a baker, a candlestick maker…. or a sculptor.”
At the end of it all, his wishes are simple. “I’m hoping Heaven is a lot like Florence, if I make it.”
And, no doubt, while he walks those heavenly streets of Italy, his earthly bronze work will be around for thousands of years, still sharing the secrets created by the ‘filthy’ hands of an artist who refuses to settle for anything less than the very best he has to offer.
For more information about Campobella’s work, and where it can be viewed, please visit craigcampobella.com
Story by CONNIE STRONG
Photographs provided by CRAIG CAMPOBELLA