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Art shines a bright light on a dark neighborhood

 Megaphone (Canada) 08 June 2019

(Originally published: 07/2009) With a bright, fluorescent yellow backdrop and a horseshoe in his hand, Jorge Campos’ painting of “Uncle Herb” captures both the humour and rawness of the Downtown Eastside. While many artists focus on the darkness and depression of the neighbourhood, Campos’ colourful paintings are so stirring because they show the brighter and more rambunctious side of the Downtown Eastside, one that often gets lost in the sad portraits. (1095 words) - By Sean Condon

With a bright, fluorescent yellow backdrop and a horseshoe in his hand, Jorge Campos' painting of "Uncle Herb" captures both the humour and rawness of the Downtown Eastside.

"My name is 'Uncle Herb,' horse shoe champion of the world," says Herb in the drawing. "37 rings in a row. I challenge anyone in the world to a game and I'll defeat them, but give me 3 months to get sober."

It's the kind of joke, a playful mix of boastfulness and self-deprecation, that makes the Downtown Eastside such a spirited neighbourhood. Despite the severe addictions and mental and physical illnesses, people in the Downtown Eastside manage to maintain an incredibly strong and vocal sense of humour.

While many artists focus on the darkness and depression of the neighbourhood, Campos' colourful paintings are so stirring because they show the brighter and more rambunctious side of the Downtown Eastside, one that often gets lost in the sad portraits.

"I just want to show the Downtown Eastside as it really is, but in a more colourful manner that isn't boring or insulting-but is colourful and funny," said the soft-spoken Campos as he sat in the back room at the VANDU (Vancouver Area Network of Drug Users) office on East Hastings.

Originally from El Salvador, the 45-year-old artist came to Vancouver's Downtown Eastside in 1998 and quietly began drawing portraits of his friends at the park. But once he saw what a powerful effect his work had on people, his drawings, along with their funny and strange quips, quickly grew into an extensive portrait of the neighbourhood.

Campos has now done hundreds of watercolour portraits, each one with an honesty and vibrancy that makes them both instantly compelling and totally unique. And while many show the playful side of the neighbourhood, others highlight the soft beauty that lies beneath the gruffness.

In one drawing, a rather tough looking man simply says, 'Marcia, I think I love u'; while another colourful portrait shows a women philosophizing that 'Beauty is in the eye of the beholder'.

Other Campos paintings don't shy away from the neighbourhood's grittiness. Wearing a vibrant fluorescent orange cap and standing in front of a sky-blue dumpster, a bespectacled middle-aged man fixes his crack pipe and says, "That's why I don't lend my pipe. This girl burnt the brillo again. Fuck it's hot!"

Yet even Campos' rawest paintings, with their colourful fluorescents and unpretentious honesty, humanize his characters rather than demonize them.

"I want people to see, through a comic and colourful way, the reality of what's going on in the Downtown Eastside," says Campos. "I want them to see that people of all ages use and how they use. I don't think everybody wants to see that because some people don't want to know anything about the Downtown Eastside. But for the people who are conscious and have compassion, they will see what is going on here in a comic way."

The portraits of addiction are something that Campos has intimate experience with-for the last 20 years he has battled with crack-cocaine. An open drug user, Campos manages to live a balanced life and helps support other users through his volunteer work with VANDU, an award-winning advocacy group that supports the rights of drugs users.

That Campos is able to be so composed is remarkable, considering his life story. When he was 16 years old, Campos' mother, who was a member of an El Salvadoran teachers' union, was assassinated by a paramilitary death squad. Campos ran out to screams on the street, only to see his mother lying in a pool of blood. His sister, who was working with leftist guerrillas, fled to the mountains for military training, while Campos and his father fled to Costa Rica.

But Costa Rica didn't offer the sanctuary that the young artist had hoped for. Depressed by all they had lost and with no end in sight to El Salvador's civil war, the men immigrated to Canada.

While his father eventually settled in Vancouver, Campos went to Toronto, where he fell in with a group of friends who were dealing cocaine. It wasn't long before he was using everyday and moved on to crack.

After getting arrested for possession, Campos was sent to rehab, where he stayed sober for over a year and began to put his life back together as a community counsellor. But once he left rehab, it didn't take long for his addiction to take control.

"As soon as I finished the program, I went to buy some crack," he says. "For a year-and-a-half I didn't use and I said I'd never use.

Half-an-hour after I left the program, I went to buy some crack." Drowning in his addiction, Campos finally decided to leave Toronto for Vancouver, unaware that the city's drug scene was even more intense than the one he was leaving behind. It didn't take him long to get sucked into the Downtown Eastside, where he started using both heroin and crack. But just when he felt he was at the end of his rope, he found acceptance and support with VANDU.

"I was ashamed of myself," says Campos. "No one understood me and I felt very excluded from people. When people saw me, I saw that they didn't like that I used crack or heroin. I was very ashamed and I considered suicide several times because I didn't find a solution. But when I found VANDU, I felt that there was still something out there. There is still something out there, this is not the end of the world; suicide is not the solution."

Today, Campos continues to paint bright and beautiful portraits of people from his community. He has even begun to expand his work, drawing portraits of popular news anchors and reporters. As a member of VANDU, he volunteers by taking the minutes during board meetings.

The community that Campos has found in the Downtown Eastside is a strong contrast to the neighbourhood that is often portrayed as sad and desperate by the media. It is a community that has an enormous amount of love, humour and support; and that is what is reflected in Campos' paintings. It is a neighbourhood that, while overwhelmed with drugs, could also provide Campos with the support he needs to overcome his addiction.

"After years of addiction, when I found VANDU things changed," says Campos. "Some day I will be able to quit and someday something will happen that will encourage me to quit.

And that day will be the happiest day of my life."

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