After self-imposed exile in Italy, artist Stephen Campbell is back, in

celebratory mood, and helping Scotland's youth, as Clare Henry discovers

IN 1993 the famous Scottish painter, Steven Campbell, opted out and

took his family to Italy, threatening never to return. He was angry,

angry about the state of the nation, pessimistic about the future,

despairing of British society in general. Moreover, after a decade at

the top of the art-world tree as an international name, he still felt


Now he's back and -- man of extremes -- has gone from isolation to

collaboration in a big way, embracing his local community with vim and

vigour, applying his energy to a vast range of projects and people --

huge landscape murals for Glasgow Airport, a portrait of film-maker Bill

Forsyth, an exhibition of 90 inter-related pictures, lectures in Glasgow

and Orkney, a jazz opera with Tommy Smith and Stuart Hepburn, a big

(permanent) picture for Glasgow Royal Concert Hall, and more.

For Campbell has -- literally -- moved down from the mountain to live

right beside the village cross. ''This has been a lucky house for us.

Really lucky. We haven't done a thing to it since we moved in, so it's

rather like living in a B&B -- no responsibilities for the decor or the


From this small but convivial Stirlingshire base, with his three kids

at the local school, he orchestrates his life on a celebratory note. It

still takes in trips to New York (in September he exhibited at the

prestigious Marborough Gallery) and Dublin (for his 42nd birthday in

March), but also allows time for family, friends, fishing, and evenings

teaching teenagers in a local hall.

I visited one of his self-initiated night classes. ''There may be

urban deprivation but there's rural deprivation too. These kids have

nothing to do, nowhere to go. They just hang around the streets. I want

to change that.''

It was a far cry from the Campbell I knew in New York in the early

1980s -- or indeed the Campbell of pre-Italy. The village hall was in

darkness apart from a sea of candles stuck to rough pieces of card

scrawled with words such as love, peace, brother, sister, friendship,

poetry, silence. A group of teenagers perched on chairs. Campbell sat on

the floor, talking passionately about St Francis and Fra Angelico while

Gregorian chants played in the background.

He was accompanied by Father Declan, a Franciscan friar. ''I adore St

Francis. His chapel is near Lucca where we stay in Italy. His chapel is

so beautiful, so moving.''

How did he get hold of a friar?

''I looked in the Yellow Pages, phoned them up and said I needed a

friar for next Wednesday. No problem. Who did I want? I said someone

young, tall, dark, and handsome.'' And he was. Good with the kids too,

though I think the Gregorian chants threw him at first.''

After the life of St Francis, we had music from four of the students

(''One was a real pain but we knocked him into shape'') followed by an

Indian carryout delivered all the way from Stirling. When the janitor

came to close up, the kids had to be levered out of the door. Parallel

classes on film, writing, and poetry included contributions by Forsyth;

actor/script writer Stuart Hepburn; poet Edward Morgan; David Punter,

Professor of English at Stirling; and Elvis impersonator Jesse Garron.

''Everyone did it for free,'' recounts Campbell. It was art education

by the back door. If you care about the arts it's easy to make a small

commitment. But you should see my phone bill!''

Campbell's current project, painting a 30ftX8ft long mural for the

international hall of Glasgow Airport, is again celebratory. ''It's

called The Golden City and shows Glasgow in a vast, glorious, romantic

golden glow bordered by nature,'' he explains, gesticulating towards two

immense panels propped against the wall of a chilly Perthshire mill, the

size of an aircraft hanger and scattered with boats, machinery, lathes,

and industrial-type clutter.

I first saw the 14 sketches for it on his dining-room table amid the

Christmas clutter; different sweeping compositions of a verdant panorama

starting with a wonderful waterfall crashing down rocks and through

woods before winding through pastureland to the city. The foreground

includes giant-size purple fritillaries, a deliberate reference to

Charles Rennie Mackintosh's famous flowers.

Driving to and fro from this new studio I began to see things through

Campbell's eyes. The Carse of Stirling provides splendid vistas;

villages laid out at your feet in rich, fertile, open countryside amid

the Fintry Hills. Campbell's vision for the airport mural is inspired by

the view as you approach the city from the north. Cupped by dark woods,

ploughed fields and flowers, it will feature birds, leaping salmon, wild

animals, and butterflies; an idealised and idyllic Glasgow, but one

bound to please travellers.

''I've got to get the balance between nature and the city; the Dear

Green Place idea. It's tempting to add something dramatic, but it would

be the wrong thing to do for the location. It's not the place to be dark

and moody. No way! I want people to be uplifted; invigorated. I love

Glasgow,'' avers Campbell.

Campbell is a man of intensity. He loves his wife of 20 years with a

passion, he adores his three children -- and his close friend and

fishing companion Bill Forsyth whose unusual portrait he has just

completed as a commission from the Scottish National Portrait Gallery.

''They said they wanted a Campbell, not just a straight portrait, so

I've tried to do that, and also show the many facets of Bill's

personality. He's a very complex person, a dark mysterious creature. I

put Bill between town and country, by a great sweep of a motorway

flyover. He often uses the Kingston Bridge at night in his films. His

long arm echoes its shape and also protects his kids. It's curious and


There are in fact four different images of Forsyth in the picture; one

held by himself, others by his two children. Campbell also includes

himself as a shadowy figure, the artist reaching round a tree with his

brush to put the finishing touch.

Forsyth approves of the portrait. ''Steven didn't consult me, but then

he's known me for years. Artists are kidding themselves if they think

they can mine someone's soul in three or four sittings. The portrait is

entirely his version of me and obviously I can't take an objective view,

but there are some things there I recognise in myself, some of the

tensions and dynamics. I like his composition; the notion of including

several faces. It's more honest to acknowledge that you're not going to

find a person in one go. Sure, we've had a lot of fun over the years --

the truth of that is there on the canvas.''

The Campbell/Forsyth portrait goes on show next week at Edinburgh's

Portrait Gallery where it will be displayed together with other Campbell

oils and several stills from Being Human, Forsyth's last film.

James Holloway, curator at the Portrait Gallery, is keen to up the

gallery's profile in contemporary art and to extend the audience. The

director, Duncan Thomson, anxious to get away from the dusty dead,

historical image, introduced the commissioning of recent portraits about

10 years ago and is building up a fine collection of famous living


Says Holloway: ''We have been adventurous in our commissioning, from

footballers like Danny McGrain to musicians such as Sir Alex Gibson and

Peter Maxwell Davis -- plus Mick McGahey, Molly Hunter, R D Laing,

Michael Clark, even politicians such as Jo Grimmond painted in a fairly

controversial style. The Forsyth is a welcome addition. We are thrilled

with Steven's interpretation.''

Campbell is currently in post-Leverhume euphoria, having just received

a grant to go back to Italy to paint. But this time the trip is a mere

three-month affair, for there is much to do on the Glasgow Royal Concert

Hall picture which will have a musical theme (one of a quartet by

Howson, Currie, and Wiszniewski) while his latest idea, Three Ways to

Die, a contemporary opera (production design by Campbell, story by

Hepburn of Taggart fame, music by saxophonist Tommy Smith, and directed

by Stuart Laing of the Citizens' Theatre) is scheduled for next Mayfest.

It recounts an event of random violence in three acts, where the killer,

confessor, and witness all tell their side of the story, ending with a

final convulsive struggle ''which leads to the death of the witness --

or not'' explains Campbell mysteriously.

Now in his forties, Campbell is well aware of the need to be strong,

of the irony of life which can kill indiscriminately, of the unfairness

of it all. His last lecture, Three Ways to Murder an Artist, dwelt on

the ironic deaths of heroes Warhol, Giacometti, and Egon Schiele.

Death with an ironic twist has always fascinated Campbell. ''Life and

death, that's all there is. But you have to do your best, aim high, but

see yourself as a piece of rubbish. What the hell!''

As Forsyth says: ''It's good to see Steve committed to Scotland and

even better to see him looking the world in the eye.''

The Golden


Glasgow in a

vast, glorious,

romantic golden

glow bordered

by nature