Prolific muralist Cornelio Campos draws inspiration from his own story and those of other immigrants to inform his artwork
By Ben Crosbie | Photo by John Michael Simpson
As a kid growing up in the Mexican state of Michoacán, Cornelio Campos was, like many young children, intrigued by superheroes. He pored over comic books, but, contrary to convention, what captivated Cornelio wasn’t the heroes themselves. Rather, it was the illustrations. And his fascination with the depictions of the characters and their superpowers would eventually grow into a skill that was very real, and quite powerful in its own right.
When he immigrated to the United States after graduating high school, his love of painting was one of the few things he carried with him.
He originally moved to Los Angeles and relocated to North Carolina two years later. He had a cousin who lived here, and Cornelio was able to get a job working on a farm. Painting served as a coping mechanism over the course of a relentlessly arduous immigration experience that left Cornelio feeling disillusioned as the shiny promises of a new and prosperous life failed to materialize.
“It started as a form of alleviation,” he says. “It was a very hard transition, and I think that’s what I reflect in the sociopolitical themes of my paintings.”
Cornelio eventually realized that many of the elements in his life that he channeled into his artwork were common stories among Hispanic immigrants. “[In] expressing myself personally, [I] didn’t know that I was narrating the story of millions of people,” he says.
Cornelio is now dedicated to telling the stories of his people through art, and many of his public pieces can be found throughout Durham.
In April, the Durham County Main Library put Cornelio’s “Wings of a Migrant Butterfly” on display in the space that houses the North Carolina Collection. The mural, like most of Cornelio’s work, depicts themes of immigration, highlighting the value of building bridges across borders, whether those barriers separate people physically, mentally or metaphorically. “It’s representative of the values of the library,” says archivist Lauren Menges, head of the North Carolina Collection. “We’re always trying to highlight those underrepresented communities in Durham and make sure that everyone feels welcome at the library.”
Lauren says library staff were excited and eager to display the work of such a prominent Durham artist. “He’s a very big pillar in the local art community, so to have that representation in our collection is important,” she says.
The display is the latest achievement of the Two-Way Bridges community outreach project, an initiative that aims to establish a mutually beneficial relationship between Duke University and Durham’s Latino community. While the mural was designed by Cornelio, Duke students alongside Latino public schoolers assisted in the painting process.
Cornelio was also recently featured on “Visibly Speaking: NC’s Inclusive Public Art Project,” a new series presented by PBS North Carolina in partnership with the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation that “follows the creation of inclusive public art projects that honor the often overlooked stories of Black, Indigenous and Latin[o] communities throughout the state.”
“Cornelio Campos and his art embodies the spirit of ‘Visibly Speaking,’” says Heather Burgiss, director of original productions at PBS NC, referring to his emphasis on the stories of his community and matters of diversity, equity and inclusion.
Cornelio’s episode, titled “El Futuro,” documents the creation of his mural at El Futuro, a nonprofit mental health clinic in Durham that serves Latino families. Local Latino community members were involved in the mural’s design, which portrays struggles of immigration and hopes for a bright future. Heather also shares that Cornelio and PBS NC video producer Jonathan Duran, an immigrant from El Salvador, have a strong bond. The pair won a Midsouth Emmy Award together in 2020 for “Cornelio Campos: Documenting Immigrants’ Lives.”
“Their shared experiences formed a powerful lens for storytelling,” Heather says.
Now, the boy whose artistic dreams were partly inspired by comic book crusaders has himself become an inspiration for his community’s youth.Through his colorful explorations of such profound themes, mined from his own personal experiences and reflected in the stories of countless others, his hope and his purpose for creating remain steady, straightforward and maybe even a little bit heroic. “I hope that our Latino youth, if they see [my art], I hope they are inspired to follow their dreams,” he says.