It seems like yesterday, but it has already been four years since the streets lost one of its heroes: Jef Campion - Army of One/JC2. For me personally, it was a loss I still struggle to put into words. I didn't know him well even though we traded messages on the web. I had only met him a couple of times IRL, and yet I mourn his passing almost daily. Jef was the spark that ignited my love for all things Street Art. Before the High-Line; Chelsea had grit, and layers, so many layers... it was among those layers that I first saw "Grenade Boy". As a photographer I was immediately drawn to the Arbus image... but it was Jef's embellishments and message that grabbed me... grabbed me so hard I am still in its grasp all these years later.
Jef was many things - artist just one - a true modern day renaissance man. Many of us knew he was a long time fire fighter in Yonkers. It was his involvement as a first responder on 9-11 that launched his Street Art career. He spent forty consecutive days at Ground Zero, sifting through the ashes as a recovery worker. Those days forever changed him both physically and mentally. Like so many, he lost his innocence, and came face to face with the purpose of his existence. Already a long-time volunteer for charities such as Ronald McDonald House; children, their welfare, safety and right to live in a peaceful world without war and disease became his primary focus. His work had meaning, it had a message, it had a reason to be seen, and a voice that needed to be heard... a voice that still needs to be heard. Children are the real victims of war, disease and poverty; his work testifies to that belief.
9-11 gave him his artistic mission, but in the end it took his life. In physical pain from the effects of being a first responder, and suffering with bouts of depression and PTSD, he was unable to continue working in the job he loved (being a firefighter). Four years ago Jef made a choice to leave us, and find his peace.
As much as I had been drawn to his work on the streets, it wasn't until after his death that I had the opportunity to see the true depth of his artistic talent. In April of 2014, just a few short months after his passing, Castle Fitzjohns Gallerymounted an intimate retrospective of his life, including works never before seen in public. His voice came through loud and clear, along with a message of pain and frustration that still haunts me today.
As the years pass by, other artists will work the streets of NYC. Many will have their own messages that also need to be seen and heard. All of those yet to come will owe a debt to those that came before, those like Army of One who tried so hard to bring peace to the world.
In town this weekend? Check out First Street Garden Art Park on Saturday the 20th. Artists Will Power and Fumero will be painting a very special tribute to Jef. Come by, share memories and share hope for the future!