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Narratives, past and present

Tulsa Artist Fellow Crystal Z. Campbell examines Tulsa’s racial history

Crystal Z. Campbell with her 35mm film project

Melissa Lukenbaugh

I met Crystal Z. Campbell two days before Terence Crutcher was shot and killed by Tulsa Police Officer Betty Shelby. 

That may seem like a strange way to begin an artist profile, but let me explain.

Campbell is an artist of African-American, Filipino, and Chinese descent, here as part of the Tulsa Artist Fellowship. She spoke much about the Tulsa race massacre of 1921 when I met her. Crutcher’s death in north Tulsa was a painful reminder, that race is still a dividing factor here in Tulsa, where it has been—violently—before. Since she’s been in Tulsa, Campbell, an Oklahoma City/Norman native who’s lived out of state for the last decade, has become very aware of the city’s fraught racial history, and the lack of space that has been created to reckon with it. 

“[Greenwood] is just a few blocks from where my studio is,” she said. “I think I have been fixated on this particular history because there’s almost no trace of it here.”

On one expansive wall of Campbell’s Cameron Street studio are 17 paintings on enlarged black and white archival photographs. Each is a photo from Greenwood taken just before, during, or after the massacre. Each is covered with paint marker, graphite, acrylic paint, or pens.

“These are kind of really tiny memorials to the event,” Campbell said. “There’s been a real lack of space to honor that history. Of course we have the park, but the actual structures are really gone. I like this idea of the images of the people going through the rubble to build again.”

In one image, a man is going through the remains of what was left after the fire. Many are of unmarked sites of ruin. In another, a crowd stands outside a burning church. Some of the paintings have multi-colored dots sprinkled over the image, others use lines and texture to make the images more sculptural, to have dimension. Campbell sees them as translations that mediate the narrative of what happened, and how to look at it.

“I was wanting to show these different slices of time and make them more tangible in a literal way—like trying to bring history into the present … the images, for me, are incredibly hard to look at, or even look away from, and I wanted to add a layer of possibility over the historical aspect of the image.”

The images, of which she hopes to make 50, are arranged in a grid. Blank spaces punctuate the arrangement, as if certain images once hanging have disappeared. 

“[In the historical archives] you’ll see the newspaper … and you realize there are sections cut out and it’s a photocopy. So, it’s been manipulated. It’s clearly not a full account and that’s something I think about in laying out these images. Some of these I left blank … that story is buried with a lot of people, and some missing people.”

Campbell is a multi-disciplinary artist; she works with everything from ceramics to copper to film, and makes light, sound, and video art. Besides the race massacre-inspired paintings, she is working on making photographs and a film with a roll of damaged 35mm film she found in a theater in New York City. 

“I found it in The Slave Theater,” she said. “The Slave was an important place for activism in the black community.”

She doesn’t know much about the film but plans to make a research trip to New York this month in hopes of discovering more. Campbell has spent much of this year at the Tulsa Artist Fellowship manually scanning 20,000 images, which is about every other frame of the film.

Regardless of the medium, Campbell takes on historical anecdotes and narratives, and offers through her practice a lens through which to view the past.

For more from Liz, read her profile of Tulsa Artist Fellow Eric Sall.

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