Coloring Campbell Club
With a giant metal spider perched in the front yard and musty couches scattered on the porch, the Campbell Club, wedged in-between the manicured lawns of nearby sororities, is a hard place to miss. The Campbell Club is a student co-operative situated along Alder Street on the University of Oregon’s campus. It’s early evening on a mid-November Friday, and for a place that is home to thirty people, it seems oddly empty.
Pink, red, and light blue illuminate the walls in the staircase and living room. In this central area, behind cluttered rows of residents’ bikes, words that read, “May the walls of this house become an anti-authoritarian art gallery” are scribbled sloppily in black.
Unlike most college housing where residents are charged with hefty fees for the slightest wall markings, the Campbell Club actually encourages residents to write, draw, and paint on these walls. “This is our space and this community wants to see people be creative and improve the place,” says second-year resident Riley Peck.
Two girls are in the kitchen cutting up vegetables for dinner that night. Above them, the walls are lined with some of the most socially and politically controversial art pieces in the house. These have been known to spark heated debates among residents. In one piece, a skeleton dressed like the Pope is riding a rocket and throwing pumpkin pies.
About an hour later, the girls put a communal dinner on the table, and nearly twenty people—mostly Campbell Clubbers accompanied by a couple guests—gather around the dining room. Chili, salad, and baked bread with squash are the options for tonight; it’s all placed together on table in the center of the room, and people can grab however much they want. Dinner is leisurely, filled with friendly conversation.
Like cooking and other house chores, the artwork, too, is often a group activity. “A lot of times art is a solitary activity where you’re drawing by yourself in a studio. But…here, lots of art happens that is more of a collective thing and so you’re creating something with someone else,” says former resident Amy Fox. With a battered pair of converse shoes and a lip ring, Amy Fox, an Art major who graduated from the UO with a bachelor’s degree in Art in the spring of 2009, feels that residents benefit from being surrounded by canvas-esque walls. “There’s a degree of freedom… in the co-op that you’re never going to get living in an apartment or renting a house because you can paint and do whatever you want on the walls,” Fox says. “It is a public place to display your art and live in rooms that are surrounded by art as opposed to four white walls.”
With no landlord or resident assistant figure looming over the house, residents are free to create—and seemingly, to do—whatever they want. On the second floor, there is a large painting in blue and black with the phrase, “Love is All You Need.” Another is a close-up portrait of a man with his hands to his face and his mouth open. The word “solution” is painted in red and white across his teeth. In the hallways, even the bedroom doors have been transformed by artistry. One is covered in a black and white spiral. Another has a giant Cheshire Cat. Along the staircase between the second and third floors, the walls are red, green, and light blue.
Nestled in the corner of the dining room, behind an empty candy dispenser and couches, lies a seven-foot replica of a tree. The trunk is made of wires and twigs closely wrapped around each other. Leaves and other ornaments hang down from the branches, reminiscent of an environmentally friendly Christmas tree. A mural of a mermaid warps around the staircase that leads to the basement. The hair of the mermaid continues down to the basement, where it turns into a dog.
That artistic freedom they enjoy also extends to the creation process itself. A few residents still remember one such artistic venture. One night, a couple of years ago, a former resident covered her entire naked body in red paint. Dripping in red, she ran down the hallway and pressed herself up against a wall near the kitchen. The red imprint of her body remains there today.
But while the lack of regulation may be conducive to the creation of art, it has also caused some problems. Typically, residents are allowed to decorate their bedrooms upon moving in. The Campbell Club has a high turnover rate; Peck estimates that they lose about half of their residents every year. A few people have moved in, painted over a mural in their room, and moved out a few weeks later. To safeguard against these occurrences, the house recently adopted a new policy—residents can get artwork in their rooms protected. The only way for another artist to remove the protection is to obtain consensus from the entire house. So far, Ian Royer is the only one to have a piece, his mural depicting rioters in Paris burning cop cars, protected by the new policy.
While some of the artwork is painted over to make room for the next artist, many other pieces are left for years. Much of the Campbell Club’s art history is shrouded in mystery—the current residents are not sure exactly when certain pieces were created.
On the second floor, a small alcove in the wall has been filled with various decorations, toys and pictures, the shrine symbolizes a piece of the odd history surrounding the co-op, and a small picture of John Cusack. The John Cusack Shrine has been around for as long as anybody currently living there can remember, but its origins remain unknown.
The same is true of a shrine in the attic. With a dim, temperamental desk lamp serving as the only light, the attic is already creepy. At the top of the creaking ladder, sits a low table covered in red candle wax and a burnt bible. Cell phones are nailed into the wall above the table. All anybody seems to know about the origin of this piece, an alter known as the “Shrine to Nothing,” is that it was created by three women who lived in the house sometime in the 1990s. According to the legend, the creators were a part of a blood cult. Today most residents aren’t sure what a blood cult is, but by word of mouth, they have been able to piece some details together. The rumors say that each night the girls would come to the attic to watch the sun set from the roof. Then they would return to the attic to perform a ritual on the alter. Over the years, some Christian members have voiced their opinions against the shrine because of the degradation of the Bible. Nonetheless, the alter remains in the attic and some people continue to add on to it.
Life at the Campbell Club has been constantly changing throughout the decades. As one of the oldest student co-operatives in the nation, they have been around for 75 years. In the 1970s, the house had resident assistants and curfews. But by the 1990s, the co-op became a hotbed for radicalism, especially anarchism. Although this stage came to an end early this century, remnants of the green anarchism are prevalent parts of the house today. The first floor bathroom, currently marked “out of order,” contains marked pictures of Malcom X and other radical movements with several hateful and alarming messages.
Despite this disconnect with some of the historical details, the art provides a small window into the past. “We don’t have records and we only have some history,” Peck says. “Art is one of the very few things we have that actually connects to the past.”
And although that connection can be a little bit hazy, it still resonates with many. “[I have] no idea of when the shrine started… it’s one of those things we can take out but we don’t because of the history, we sort of respect it,” says Ian Royer about the “Shrine to Nothing.” The same goes for the art in the kitchen, some of which construction workers painted over during the summer. Next to the Pope drawing, part of the wall is blank. Many of the Campbell Clubbers were deeply affected by this. “I think what bothers us so much about losing this art is not so much that we lost the art, but that we lost the history,” Peck explains. “So much else in the house changes, but those paintings have been permanent.”