ON the wall of her Kippen home Carol Campbell has a memory box. It’s a gather-up of bits and pieces, of photographs and knick-knacks and belts and chains and plastic hearts. There’s a one-armed clock that, back in its two-armed days, she used to teach her kids the time. Then there are her husband’s cigarette papers, his cologne (Fendi Uomo) and the lightbulb that exploded above his chair when he died.

“I brought him that back from Disneyland one time,” she says, pointing to a silver belt that hangs from the wall. “His famous two belts. He used to wear a plain black belt and that one.”

In short, Carol is surrounded by all the loved detritus gathered up over the years and given an added layer of meaning through time and grief. A secular reliquary for a life full of love and creativity.

Memories caught in objects. She is even wearing one today. At her neck there is pinned a brooch with a photograph of her late husband Steven.

Steven Campbell, artist, husband, father, dandy. This house – and the studio across the road – is where he raised his family and worked on his paintings for decades before his untimely death in 2007, at the age of just 54.

Campbell was one of the finest Scottish painters of the past 50 years. His installation On Form & Fiction which filled the Third Eye Gallery (now the CCA) in Glasgow in 1990 may be the most thrilling I’ve ever seen in Scotland. (It was recreated at the National Gallery in Edinburgh in 2014 as part of, GENERATION, a celebration of contemporary art in Scotland over the previous quarter of a century.)

Emerging in the early 1980s, Campbell was labelled one of the “New Glasgow Boys” alongside Peter Howson, Ken Currie and Adrian Wiszniewski (a term and a grouping he didn’t much care for). Now, nearly 15 years after his death, his work is seeing something of a renaissance, bolstered by the work of The Steven Campbell Trust, which his widow is a director of.

In 2018 Tramway mounted Steven Campbell: Love, an exhibition of 12 large-scale multimedia collages made by the artist between 1988 and 1991, and now fashion historian Mairi MacKenzie and fashion designer Beca Lipscombe have curated an online exhibition entitled Dressing Above Your Station (produced by Panel) which attempts to reframe the artist’s work through his interest and love of clothing.

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As MacKenzie tells me, the term “New Glasgow boy” is not used anywhere in Dressing Above Your Station. “I think the best way to move on from something is not mention it,” she tells me as we sit down to soup and bread in Campbell’s kitchen.

“It was a term that I can safely say Steven hated with a passion,” Carol explains. “The other guys probably hated it as well. It certainly didn’t serve Steven well because he always felt he came from a much more surrealist viewpoint.”

How Glasgow was he anyway, she asks? “He was more of a suburbanite. He was from Rutherglen, out in the sticks. If you’re talking Glasgow, well, I’m Maryhill. I think Maryhill trumps Rutherglen any time.”

The last occasion I came to this house was almost 20 years ago to talk to Campbell himself. Today his widow, MacKenzie and I spend a sun-dappled Friday afternoon in March discussing paintings, love, loss and memory. It feels like a privilege.

The renewed interest towards her late husband’s work is thrilling to Carol. Dressing Above Your Station, she says, has also allowed her to step back and re-evaluate her husband’s work from a new perspective.

It was only when she started working with MacKenzie and Lipscombe, she says, that she started to make the connections between what her husband wore and the clothing that the figures in his paintings are adorned in.

The truth is Campbell the artist could have stepped out of one of his own canvases. “There’s an amazing photo in the exhibition of Steven with the family and he’s dressed like a warrior, his black beret on,” MacKenzie points out.

“Dressed like Che Guevara,” adds Carol.

The Herald: Steven with his daughter Greer on a family holiday in Tournus, FranceSteven with his daughter Greer on a family holiday in Tournus, France

“And it just exemplifies,” MacKenzie continues, “when your parents are a bit out there and you just think, ‘Oh my God, just what are they wearing that for?’”

Carol smiles at a memory. When he used to pick the kids up from school, he’d arrive in his old Mercedes and his boilersuit and shout, “Campbells, come on down!” she recalls.

“The kids said to me one time, ‘Mum, why can’t you pick us up from school?’ I said, ‘Mummy’s working, so daddy has to get you from school.’ And they said, ‘Why can’t he just be a Marks and Spencer daddy like everybody else’s daddy?’

“He never let them forget that. And now they look back and say, thank God he wasn’t a Marks and Spencer daddy.”

But what follows, for the most part, is Carol and Steven’s story.

The Herald: Photobooth photographs of Carol and Steven taken on the day of his interview for the Fulbright ScholarshipPhotobooth photographs of Carol and Steven taken on the day of his interview for the Fulbright Scholarship

Carol met Steven Campbell when she was 17, in 1971, on a bus trip to Belgium. “My girlfriend booked to go on this coach trip to Ostend and it was all people of fifties and over, because who at 17 goes on a coach trip?” Carol asks. “So, we got on the coach, and we see there are two young men on the coach this turns out to be Steven and his brother.

“That was how we met. At the end of the holidays, he said would I like to go out in Glasgow to the pictures? We did the classic meet under the clock at Central Station and that was that.”

Campbell wasn’t an artist then. He was an apprentice at British Steel. “If anything,” Carol says, “he thought he would be more political than artistic. He was a card-carrying member of the Communist party, but he became a bit disillusioned with that.

“About that time his grandmother had given him a book to read about Toulouse-Lautrec. And he read this and said this is the most amazing story. And then it just spiralled. He kept buying books and then started really to enjoy art.

“We both gave up our jobs. I gave up teaching, he gave up British Steel, and we took a tent, and we went off round Europe for six months and he decided when he came back that he was going to get some Highers at night school and put in a portfolio to the art school. He was accepted and I went back to teaching to keep us.”

After graduating from the Glasgow School of Art, Campbell found almost instantaneous success. He won a Fulbright scholarship to study at the Pratt Institute and the couple decamped to New York in 1982.

“Everyone has special times in their life, and I guess our New York years were our really special time,” Carol suggests. “You get a period in your life when everything seems to come together.”

They arrived in New York, found a room in the notorious Chelsea Hotel (Carol can tell you stories about the cockroaches and a mattress that, she says, looked like an Antonio Tapies painting: “I don’t know how many bodily fluids had been absorbed by that bed.”). They moved to the YMCA and then to a loft share between Soho and Little Italy. Campbell spent his time in the city painting continuously.

The Herald:  Lady with Palette Hat and Hound, Portrait of Carol, by Steven Campbell Lady with Palette Hat and Hound, Portrait of Carol, by Steven Campbell

Eventually, he rolled his canvases up, put them inside a carpet tube and walked around Soho from gallery to gallery and ask if they would look at his paintings. Barbara Toll did just that and took a couple for a group show.

“She phoned us once the show was hung to say John Russell [art critic] of the New York Times had been in and loved Steven’s work and was going to have it as part of the feature he was writing about emerging artists,” Carol recalls.

“We went to The Algonquin for drinks and then we went downtown to Avenue of Americas because that was where the papers would land first. So, about two o’clock in the morning, the New York Times hits the streets. We get a copy and open it up and there’s Steven’s painting in this article by John Russell.

“So, Steven then goes and buys a bunch of flowers for Barbara. We go to the gallery, shove them through the letterbox and by the time we went down to see her in the afternoon the paintings were all sold, and she said, ‘One man show.’ And that was it.”

One of the paintings was sold for a Comme Des Garcons credit note worth thousands of dollars, MacKenzie notes. It’s why as part of the exhibition there’s a recreation of the Comme Des Garcons store on show at the MacLellan Works in Sauchiehall Street in Glasgow.

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The clothes the couple bought from the shop continued to be worn long after they had returned to live in Kippen, where they raised their three children Lauren, Greer and Rory and where Campbell used a garage as his studio. “I love the idea of something like Comme Des Garcons being worn in Kippen to bring up a family,” MacKenzie says, smiling. “It’s not the usual context you see it in.”

New York was a launching pad for a career in art. But artistic reputations rise and fall over the years. There were good times and lean times. Carol returned to work as a teacher so they would have a steady income.

“We had been thrifty,” Carol says. “We knew as long as there was one salary coming in then he could have these exhibitions sporadically which would put a bit more back into the nest egg. And that’s when you’d have the extra treats.

“He never verbalised it. You both know things aren’t going the way they used to. You don’t say that to your husband. And he didn’t say that to me. But you’re both aware.

“But we were never worried about money because he had done so well. It must have been hard to tumble from the limelight, but, again, the work is his saviour. If he had been a shallower man, where fame and the money was the goal, then that could have been really traumatic. But that was never Steven’s goal.”

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For Campbell it was all about the work. And what strange, seductive, storied work. His paintings often seem to exist in some curious, often slightly creepy, Campbellworld of the imagination, one that mixed up flora and fauna and ghost stories and murder mysteries and literary and cinematic references.

“They are thrilling, and they are mysterious and there is always space for the viewer to fill their own story within it,” MacKenzie suggests.

The house we are sitting in is itself a small corner of Campbellworld. Carol is surrounded by her late husband’s work. Inevitably, perhaps, we end up talking about grief.

“When it first happens it’s such a tsunami. That’s the only way I could describe it. It’s like being ill. You open your eyes and this memory floods in and your stomach just falls away and you think, ‘Another day’.

“Joan Didion wrote a book called A Year of Magical Thinking and my first year without Steven was very much like that. I would be sitting here talking to people, but you’re not in your head …

“That took a long time to go, and, in many ways, you don’t want it to go because each time that lessens you feel like you’re losing them.

“I got so bad with panic attacks to the point where I was in my work, and they had to call an ambulance because I was just passing out with it. And it was a paramedic – because they tell it like it is – who said, ‘Listen you’ve got to get to a doctor, and you need some serious grief counselling because you can’t be calling us out every time you have a panic attack.’

“I remember going along and the first thing I said to this woman when I went in was ‘I don’t want to lose my grief.’ I said I’ve not come here for you to put this away. This is all I have left now. My grief is all that I have of him. And as soon as I feel that’s gone that’s me lost everything. I don’t want it away. I want to be able to cope with it, to lead my life and not have panic attacks, but I don’t want the grief gone. I need to have it.’”

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Time passes. You can come to terms with grief (a little at any rate). Artistic reputations may cool but then they can flare up again. With Dressing Above Your Station that seems to be happening for Steven Campbell. And deservedly so.

More could happen. “I would like him to have a proper retrospective,” his widow says, “an acknowledgement from the National Gallery ,some place like that.”

Even so, she loves the renewed attention for his work. “I just feel sorry he’s not here. It should be Stephen getting his picture taken him all excited in anticipation. I feel sorry that he doesn’t get that.”

The day after we speak is Steven’s birthday. Carol tells me one final story about his funeral before I go.

“I had bought a chain to wear to the funeral and it had this stupid big plastic heart on it and the girls said, ‘It’s a nice chain, mum. Just ditch the heart.’ So, I threw it in the bin. And we had thrown out his cigarette papers as well.

“The day after his funeral I walked up to the top of the road and I closed my eyes and I kind of stood there saying, ‘Look, I can’t do this on my own, Steven. I really need a sign of some kind that you’re going to be there. I opened my eyes. I don’t know if I was expecting doves to flutter down or something. Nothing. Turned at the corner of the road. The bins had all been emptied. The only two things lying in the road were the heart and the cigarette papers and that’s always been my little sign.”

Behind me the heart and the papers sit in the memory box. Small mementoes of a life full of love and art.

Dressing Above Your Station is at dressingaboveyourstation.com/ and runs until June 26. The exhibition is accompanied by a shop front projection at McLellan Works, in Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow and a poster campaign across the city which runs until April 17

Mairi MacKenzie on creating a virtual exhibition:

What are you wanting to explore in Dressing Above Your Station?

Basically, the role of fashion and textiles in the life and work of Steven Campbell. We’ll look at it in the paintings, we’ll look at it in personal family photographs and we’ll look at it through the clothing collection that Stephen collected over the years.

Beca and I saw a kindred spirit, I suppose, in Steven. We really understood that he understood clothes.”

Why is this a virtual exhibition?

A few different reasons. One being it was lockdown. How do you display stuff under these circumstances? Secondly, accessibility. Not that many people are going to go and see a physical exhibition. Thirdly, you don’t have the same environmental footprint as you do with a physical exhibition. And finally, it was liberating just to be able to display things in a way that might not have been possible. Steven’s paintings are large. We are able to suspend them from wires in the middle of a room and that wouldn’t be possible in real life.

And it was liberating in that we can tell a story in the way that we wanted. We can guide people around a virtual exhibition in a way that you might not be able to physically.