The inspiring story behind the ‘New Age of Slavery’ painting capturing the movement
Bodies hanging in the red stripes of the American flag and cracked stars. Never has a piece of art gripped me so hard and made me gasp.
It was like someone punched me in the chest and let the air out of me at the same time. The New Age of Slavery is the name of the work that has gone viral on the web this week, after the announcement that Eric Garner’s killer would not be indicted. It was especially shocking because Eric was placed in an illegal chokehold by a cop, and his last words (I can’t breathe) and last moments were on tape.
Those of us (me included) who have been calling for body cameras to be placed on cops immediately realized that it would solve very little (although it was just one step). In front of everyone was the indisputable fact that Black people are being lynched by the government, but instead of hanging in trees, we’re laying in the streets. And police are receiving the message loud and clear that they can do it without consequence.
So to see the piece of art was like having a bucket of cold water dumped on my head. It laid out the truth in acrylic and watercolor and it was beautiful in its honesty of an ugly reality. It ached and the paint that dripped down the canvas was crying for the lives of Black men, women and children lost. I was driven to write a post called “The Stages of What Happens When There’s Injustice Against Black People” and I felt like this piece of art needed to be in it. And I needed to know who created it.
However, because the internet is one giant game of telephone and the original piece of art had been altered, I could not find who the original artist was. It took 8 hours and a public call across my social networks asking people to help me who made it.
The amazing person who spoke for so many of us is Patrick Campbell, a lifelong artist who comes from a family of artists. 3 out of Patrick’s 4 brothers work in graphic or visual arts, and although both his parents are respiratory therapists, they’ve always encouraged their boys to pursue their passions as creatives.
Patrick’s story is incredibly inspiring and when I got on the phone with him to find out his story, I wasn’t prepared to hang up in near tears. The last thing he told me was how his mom was in tears the day before because his piece went viral. She told him “look how far you’ve come, from the hospital to this.”
Patrick was born and raised in Washington DC, and he’s been drawing his whole life, so naturally, he chose to go to a high school focused on the arts. On October 10, 2004, he turned 14 years old, as a high school freshman. Two days later, Patrick suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed on his right side. As an active teen who played 4 different sports and danced, this was a crushing blow. But most of all, he had been right-handed and it rendered him unable to even hold a pencil in his right hand.
He was wheelchair bound as he went through physical and speech therapy during his stay at the National Rehabilitation Hospital in DC, and he had given up on ever drawing again. His speech therapist encouraged him to draw Winnie the Pooh with his left hand and he refused at first. Finally, he tried and the first time, he was so discouraged by how awful it was. He kept practicing though, and within a couple of weeks, Patrick was able to draw cars he saw in the parking lot with great accuracy. By the time he was discharged from the hospital 4 days before Christmas (2 months after his stroke), Patrick could draw with his left hand just as well as he was drawing with his right before.
I had to stop him there to exclaim “WOWWW!” Not only does he create his art with the one hand that wasn’t his dominant one to begin with, he trained his left hand to take over his gift in two months. Patrick is a cyborg (or just so incredible).
It’s been 10 years since the stroke that changed his life, and he is no longer in a wheelchair, but walking (albeit with a limp). Art has always been his way of expression and it’s carried him through. He graduated with his BFA in Illustration from the California College of the Arts this year, a couple of months before Mike Brown was shot and killed in the streets of Ferguson.
Like most Black people in the United States, Patrick was paying attention to the news and was seeing people who look like him being killed senselessly. Then in September, Eric Garner died after saying “I can’t breathe” 11 times as a cop choked him.
The searing anger that came with yet another Black life ending spurred him to create New Age of Slavery. “It seems that African-Americans have been targeted in our own state and in our own country. I cannot stress that enough. IT IS OUR OWN COUNTRY.”
So he took a 16×22 white canvas and he didn’t even do a rough sketch in his sketchbook like he typically does. He just started drawing on the canvas itself. He taped off the canvas to create the 13 stripes of the flag and he drew 50 perfect stars too. And then, he started drawing and painting hanging people in every other stripe and he stopped after he did because “what I drew hurt me.” He walked away from the piece for 3 days and when he came back he painted them red, and realized that the stars couldn’t be the old-fashioned ones.
Patrick created cracks through most of the stars, and he turned the others into silhouettes of men. That was what I noticed the 2nd time I took a look at the painting. I saw the men holding guns, and I saw the boys and men who were on their knees, begging not to be shot or with their backs turned. Every time I took a look at New Age of Slavery, I saw something new and it was a fresh gut punch. And the first time I noticed the baby in the 6th red stripe, my heart ached.
I got to hear about his whole process in creating this piece and he diverts from his usual technique of creating art that looks clean here. Because his furiousness would not let him make this clean. The hanging bodies drip into the white stripes, and that is part of what makes Patrick’s work so poignant. The flag’s white stripes can’t be so white because they’re soiled by the blood of black lives taken.
When Patrick finished this piece, he stepped back from it. “I stood back and said ‘What have I done?’ and I cried. I was blown away and was in awe. This is the a piece of mine that I will say is powerful and I rarely say that with any of my pieces. It made me cry.”
It’s made many of us cry, and it’s been 3 days since I first saw it and every time I look at it, it hits me anew. In speaking with Patrick, a man so humble and honest in his work, and who really hasn’t even processed the power of his own piece fully, I was driven to make sure that people know who he is.
Strange fruit dripping on the stars and stripes, and some think it’s disrespectful. Patrick says “I agree that my flag is disrespectful but it’s grounded on hard truths.” If anyone finds his piece to be profane, then they should be endlessly offended about the state of affairs that makes this so astonishingly accurate.
Please support Patrick Campbell by hitting LIKE on his Facebook page and purchasing merchandise he has available with New Age of Slavery on it (hoodies, tshirts, posters, phone cases) and letting people know who he is when his work continues to be spread all over the internet. He deserves credit where it is due.
Patrick does not consider himself an activist but in his art, he is speaking truth to power. His dream is to make a living creating movie posters but he just created the painting that represents the necessity for a new movement. He painted the pain of a tired people who are sick of the government sanctioning our murder.
Luvvie is a professional troublemaker and writer who talks pop culture at Awesomely Luvvie, technology at Awesomely Techie and is the head behind DumbestTweets.com. She can also be found on Twitter (@Luvvie), Facebook and Instagram.