For Lifelong Artist Kimberly Camp, Art is Life
March 5, 2021
Written by PHERALYN DOVE
Photography by VELVET McNEIL
“There’s no retirement for an artist; it’s your way of living, so there’s no end to it.” ― Henry Moore
Following a long, influential career as an arts administrator, Kimberly Camp, 64, seems to be working harder than ever. And enjoying every minute.
A profusion of dolls, sculpture, jewelry, clocks, antiques, paintings, and artifacts from around the globe cohabitate at Kimberly Camp’s Galerie Marie in Collingswood, New Jersey. More than 200 artists are represented in the storefront space. Surrounded by prominent displays of her own handmade dolls, portraits, and sculptures is Camp, a globally recognized curator, arts administrator, and artist whose hands are never still.
The gallery could be described as maximalist, in the most inviting way. Twinkling fairy lights radiate a warm glow. Camp’s dollmaking studio is at the back; a window allows her to see fully into the gallery space as she works. An antique Singer power sewing machine, a computer, and a massive workstation claim center stage. Clear plastic storage boxes line wall-to-wall shelves, all stuffed with the exotic materials Camp has collected in her travels. Camp opens a box, grabs a handful of Ghanaian West African trading beads, and lets them slowly fall through her fingers. She then retrieves another box from beneath her bench, this one full of fist-sized, handmade clay doll heads in various stages of completion.
Camp’s natural hair is braided close to her head in two thick cornrows. She speaks in melodious, modulated tones and her warm smile is apparent, even though we both wear face masks and stand physically distant. Now 64, Camp opened Galerie Marie in 2013, in a move she calls her “retirement.” She bought this building in a commercial corridor envisioning a private studio on the first floor and living quarters upstairs. When local zoning codes required an active retail operation in the storefront space, she came up with the gallery concept — a natural choice, given her long career as a curator.
Camp grew up just a few miles away, in Camden, New Jersey, long before it was named the nation’s poorest city in 2012. The only child of Dr. Hubert Camp, a dental surgeon, and Marie Camp, an accomplished hat maker and seamstress, Camp remembers a Camden that once had a thriving Black middle class and a bustling business district. During the race riots of the 1960s, however, many establishments were burned down and never rebuilt. Her childhood world consisted of a one-block radius that contained her elementary school, the library, and, directly across the street from her family’s home, Zabar’s Arts and Crafts on Broadway — Camden’s main street. Camp’s mother allowed her to shop at the art supply store and pick out whatever crafts she wanted to try: “The influence from Zabar’s can’t be overstated. That’s where I got my first set of paints.”Camp pursued two majors at the University of Pittsburgh: Studio Arts and Art History, with a concentration on the art of Japan and China — which she chose initially because “it was the only class not about dead white men.” She went on to earn a Master’s degree in Arts Administration from Drexel University, setting the stage for a dual career.
Camp points out that Americans are only one generation away from the Jim Crow laws that once forbade Black people from enjoying many public cultural institutions—including museums—let alone lead them. Nonetheless, she continued to ascend in the art world: Among other notable achievements, she served as president and CEO of the Barnes Foundation, founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Experimental Gallery, and president and CEO of the Charles Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, a landmark that opened amid much fanfare after Camp traveled the world looking for the best art pieces.
Amid the demands of her administrative career in the art world, an industry not typically welcoming to Black women, Kimberly Camp never stopped creating her own art. The 55 dolls she made for a Kwanzaa bazaar in 1982 sold out in a few hours, launching Camp as a doll maker. Those first dolls, her “Brown Babies”, were made of hand-dyed muslin and clothed in 32 traditional African dress designs, from countries such as Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire, and Nigeria. Within a few years, Camp had created “Kimkins” (a name suggested by her father); this was a line of dolls made from plush suede cloth and dressed in traditional African fabrics, with distinctive, hand-painted faces. At the height of their popularity, between 1985 and 1986, Camp was making 2,000 Kimkins a year.
Today Camp’s art has been exhibited more than 100 times throughout the United States and abroad. Her venues have included The Smithsonian, the Manchester Craftsman’s Guild, and the American Craft Council Show, where she received the 2020 Award of Excellence. Her dolls are collected by art-world luminaries such as Faith Ringgold and Judith Jamison, former principal dancer and artistic director emerita of the Alvin Ailey Dance Theater; as well as artist and fellow arts administrator Nashormeh Lindo (and her husband, the actor Delroy Lindo).
A common thread in Camp’s artwork is “a strong connection to African American cultural heritage. But there’s also this fancifulness that runs through,” says Nashormeh Lindo. “Afrocentric-looking elves, trolls, and fairies have a way of showing up in her work.” The two women are also friends and creative collaborators; Camp’s work was included in an exhibition Lindo curated for San Francisco’s African American Art and Cultural Complex in 2012.
Camp’s creations have expanded to include dolls made of leather, polymer clay, paper clay, and even stoneware. She adorns them with raffia, burlap, mud cloth, cowrie shells, bison teeth, deer antlers, and more. She created some of her latest work, four-legged figures made of stoneware, “because they’re fun. I always tell people I’m uncomplicated, which causes them to laugh. I’m smiling all the time because I’m having a good time.”