Bob Campbell explores a "different kind of writing" as Buckham Gallery's 3rd Writer in Residence

FLINT, Michigan — “Writing is hard,” says Bob Campbell, the 3rd Buckham Gallery & Buckham Fine Arts Project Writer in Residence, as he stands composed inside the gallery. Following Shea Cobb and Natasha Thomas, the residency will allow him to engage his interest in visual art and gain exposure to the literary arts while engaging Flint’s BIPOC community.

The collaboration also acts as a catalyst to return Campbell to his writing roots. Roots that could’ve never happened considering the former electrician for AC Spark Plug didn’t intend to be a writer. However, he cites his late mother’s recollection of him telling her “that someday, I wanted to write a book.”

It makes sense, given his mother, who “was an artist too” with a “fabulous sense of humor,” alongside the Flint native’s family, who migrated during the Great Migration north and resided in Flint since 1922. It’s a century of, he remarks, having “been a part of the lifeblood of the city.” And although his year-long residency is almost over, the challenges have allowed much growth, expansion, and to realize “pound for pound, I don’t think there’s a city more nostalgic than Flint.”

It’s also allowed Campbell to reflect on the many truths he’s learned over his decades-long journalism career as a former staff writer for The Flint Journal, Lexington Herald-Leader, and Detroit Free Press, and author of the book, Motown Man. Some like understanding that “what you do becomes who you are, your identity,” and recognizing he went through “some withdrawal illnesses” when he stopped being a “working journalist.”

Flintside caught up with Bob Campbell to discuss his journey as Buckham Gallery’s Writer-in-Residence, the toll of being in no man’s land, and the stories he has yet to write. 

“There’ve been some exhibitions I walked in and knew right [then] what I want to say. And others I’ve walked, and I don’t know what’s happening here,” says Bob Campbell, staring at Nature is Healing by Maria Lux inside Buckham Gallery on July 29, 2023. (Anthony Summers | Flintside)Flintside: You started as an electrician. How did you discover that you had this gift of writing?

B. Campbell: “Going back in high school, I always preferred essay exams to multiple choice [and] doing research papers. But I never really had given much thought to the idea that I’d like to do this as a career. Although my mother, who’s now deceased, said when I was little, I told her that someday I wanted to write a book. I guess it was something that was always there that I didn’t fully understand or acknowledge til later in life.”  

Flintside: You’ve been Buckham Gallery’s Writer-in-Residence for almost a year. How do you feel about the journey?

B. Campbell: “It’s been a fascinating challenge. There’ve been some exhibitions I walked in and knew right [then] what I want to say about this. And others I’ve walked, and I don’t know what’s happening here; I don’t know where I’m going with it. I’ve found those exhibitions that I had to struggle with to be the most enjoyable. [Portraits of Home by Whitney Lea Sage] brought back serious memories of my neighborhood. I had written something I had never published before, so I was able to draw from that. So it’s been a fascinating ride.”

“When writing different pieces, particularly those that are personal, you’re putting yourself out there,” explains Bob Campbell inside Buckham Gallery on July 29, 2023. (Anthony Summers | Flintside)Flintside: How do you feel about being the first African American male to participate in this series?

B. Campbell: “I didn’t think about that. I was thrilled about the opportunity. The bigger thing for me was being able to be challenged and be a part of something like this. I was certainly excited about being able to bring my perspective, being challenged by what was presented to me. One of the early stories I wrote for The Journal was a Buckham Gallery exhibition. It’s interesting coming full circle 30 years later [and] writing about it in a different way.”

Flintside: Pulling on your time at The Flint Journal, Detroit Free Press, and what you’ve done on your own, have you ever felt like you were in no man’s land?

B. Campbell: “You talk about with [Motown Man]? There’s the actual writing and getting it done, and then there’s the challenge of getting it published. I definitely felt like I was in no man’s land. There was a lot of rejection, and I was about to give up on it [before] one of the last queries I sent out, I got the hit. That takes a toll on you for a while. Emotionally it was draining. I guess writers and artists are known to have their periods of dealing with existential crises.”

Flintside: When you look at your writing career and coming full circle with Buckham Gallery, what do you take away from it?

B. Campbell: “There are topics that I’m afraid to touch as a writer. I never acknowledged that to myself. I knew it intuitively. There are things that interest me, but I can’t write about that right now, if ever. When writing different pieces, particularly those that are personal, you’re putting yourself out there. Sometimes, I will write things to sort of answer a question. That was the impetus in writing [Motown Man].”

“I would say go for it. Don’t be afraid to chase the dream that you have,” tells Bob Campbell to his younger self. (Anthony Summers | Flintside)Flintside: What do you feel is next? Or what is it that you feel your spirit is calling you to do these days?

B. Campbell: “Well, I have more stories that I need to tell. It’s as simple as that. It’s making the time and giving myself the courage and the permission to make that time. It’s being disciplined about that pursuit. That’s been one good thing about the residency. But then there’s something to be said, from a writing standpoint, of allowing things to percolate for a while.”

Flintside: I want to double back to the story about your mother. It’s a powerful moment to have made that declaration and did. But what would you tell that version of you who told his mother he wanted to write a book?

B. Campbell: “I would say go for it. Don’t be afraid to chase the dream that you have. Believe in yourself. We all want to make a great living, to be comfortable, and I’m no different. How you achieve that and what that means to you, you have to come to some understanding with yourself about what is truly most important. So, I would say, yeah, you do like to write, so trust yourself.”

To learn more about Bob Campbell, visit his website. And to follow his journey as Buckham Gallery's 3rd Writer in Residence, visit:
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Read more articles by Xzavier Simon.