Karole Turner Campbell has a thing for masks. They've been making subtle appearances in her work for some time now, starting with the mime performance she created years ago while living in New York. Mime makeup, if you think about it, can hide a face as effectively as any mask. Then there's her visual art, in which she's slowly progressed from painting masks directly onto a canvas to incorporating them as three-dimensional objects. They're empty-eyed, expressionless, and yet somehow affecting. "In my drawings, the eyes were always very intense," says Campbell, or KTC as she's known. "Working with these masks, which have no eyes, it's created a whole new kind of intensity. Eyes without eyes — it's a very poetic kind of thing."
KTC has been a dancer, a playwright, a director, a performer, and a teacher in addition to being a visual artist. Within the visual arts, she's painted, drawn, sculpted, collaged, and worked in just about every medium one can think of. "I love being eclectic," she says. "I'm always yin-ing and yang-ing through life. Constantly pushing."
A native of New York who moved to Charleston five years ago, KTC credits her father with helping her develop the curiosity and drive that have shaped her various careers. "He was the one who pushed us, who made sure I went to dance class," she says. "Life was so rich." After finishing college, KTC spent more than 30 years in education, working both as a teacher and a principal. She also stayed active in the theater community, with a highlight of that work being her relationship with the prestigious Lincoln Center Directors Lab. She later got an MFA in painting, but didn't openly pursue the visual arts until a friend saw some of her work while visiting KTC's home. "She said, 'Whose is this?' I told her it was mine, and she goes, 'Yes, I know, but who's the artist?' I told her it was me, and she couldn't believe it. I'd really almost been keeping it a secret."
After that, KTC started going public. She held her first art show in Charleston during the 2007 MOJA Festival, and has participated in solo and group shows in both the Lowcountry and Brooklyn. Though her work always speaks to some theme or issue that she cares deeply about, her newest show, Eternal Vigilantes, is more explicitly thematic than her previous bodies of work. Some of that dates back to her MFA years, when a mentor urged her to work more thematically. "All these years later, I came back to that," she says. Eternal Vigilantes refers to one of Frederick Douglass' most famous quotes, "The price of liberty is eternal vigilance."
KTC's show is inspired by and dedicated to those who have kept that vigilance. One piece, a haunting, mixed media creation called "Martyrhood," consists of a pink mask on a pink background, draped in yards and yards of pink fabric. KTC created it shortly after the Trayvon Martin murder in February of 2012. "That brought up the stupidity, the ignorance, and violence that we've seen all throughout history. I was struck by the number of mothers who have to bury their children because of this violence, the layers of differentiation we build up between us." The works honor both those inside and outside the struggle against oppression. "These are for both the watchers and the watched — those who've had to watch their lives turned upside down." There will also be an installation commemorating the victims of the tragic Newtown, Conn. shooting, titled "Suffer the Little Children."
But despite the heartrending subject matter, KTC comes to her art with deep joy and optimism. "We come to art to play," she says. "The discipline, the work of being an artist — that's all to free you up to play more."