Phyllis Campbell Aspen

1910, Broken Bow, Nebraska – 1995, Beatrice, Nebraska

(Phyllis Campbell)

View artwork

An energetic, talented, and dedicated ceramicist, painter, and teacher, Phyllis Campbell Aspen had creative and educational influence on Nebraska’s 20th century fine-art culture, especially ceramic arts. She traveled so widely that a chronological listing of where and when she went seems dizzying. But looking back, any sense of confusion or lack of direction evaporates with realization that she was totally grounded by intense focus and professionalism. It was all about education, teaching, and sculpting. She never stopped learning, never stopped sharing, and never stopped creating ‒ until her death at age 85.

Phyllis grew up in Lexington, Nebraska with parents Bessie Sweeney Campbell and Herman M. Campbell, a brother, and a sister. After high school, she attended the National College of Education in Evanston, Illinois, earning a teaching certificate in 1929. She then taught elementary students in public schools in Hastings, Nebraska, 1929 to 1931, and in Parsons, Kansas, 1931 to 1935; before returning in 1935 to the National College of Education and graduating in 1937 with her B.A. degree. During the summer of 1934, she studied at the Chicago Academy of Fine Arts with Rudolph Weisenborn, a rebellious and determined modernist who crusaded against conservative art education.

After receiving her degree, she had jobs in Barrington and Glencoe, Illinois between 1937 and 1941. From 1941 to 1942, she studied at the Milwaukee Academy of Fine Art and taught elementary students at the Milwaukee University School. Staying in the upper Midwest from 1943 to 1944, she taught elementary school in Dearborn, Michigan and studied sculpture at the Detroit Society of Arts and Crafts School of Art with Gwen Lux and Sarkis Sarkisian. Again she was exposed to avant-garde teaching as Lux promoted abstraction and use of innovative sculpture materials such as polyurethene foam, resins, concrete and metals. Sarkisian, eventually Director of the School, also stressed self-expression and avoidance of copying others. Of this approach, he said: “The only way to be an artist is to know you have to train yourself.” (

Judging by Phyllis’ sculpture with its somewhat relaxed style and considering the words of reviewers and of herself, she resisted extremes and settled on an approach that she was comfortable with. Russ Erpelding, ARTreach Curator of the Museum of Nebraska Art, said that “although she falls in the modernist years, I would consider her more of a traditionalist/regionalist and coming more from the teaching side.” (Russ Erpelding) An Omaha World-Herald reviewer in 1945 described Phyllis’ portrait sculpture as “modeled…simply without much emphasis on details, and finished…with a rough, mottled cream surface. It is just a delicate and sympathetic study of a little head on narrow childish shoulders.” Referring to child portraiture, Aspen told Carolyn Fairbanks, a student and friend: “I want the child who will pose for me to be natural and chatting….My emotions come in the process of working. It is not like snapping a smiling picture with a camera. Feelings come as I proceed. When I am finishing a sculpture, I do not look at the model or picture of her. I allow whatever time it takes to have the feeling of that person come through my mind, my memory and my fingers.” (Museum of Nebraska Art files, Fairbanks)

In 1944 Phyllis returned to Lexington where she taught grade school and exhibited sculpture including the Six States Exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha that purchased her 1945 Six States entry, Sharon Gifford. The next year, the Walker Art Gallery at Nebraska State Teachers College at Kearney (now University of Nebraska at Kearney) held an exhibition titled The Third Annual Sculpture Show, and acquired her first-place entry, Ruth and Torso, which a reviewer described as “sensitive and rhythmic.” In October 1947, she participated in the Lincoln Artists’ Guild All-Nebraska Show at Morrill Hall. Meanwhile, having earned an M.A. degree from Nebraska State Teachers College, she became an instructor in the Art Department from 1946 to 1953, and then was away for two years to spend time in the communities of Crofton in 1953 and Litchfield in 1954. From 1955 to 1963, she was again teaching at the Kearney college. At the beginning of that time period, when she was in her mid 40s, she added the name of Aspen to her professional name of Phyllis Campbell when she married Laurence J. Aspen in Grand Island. The couple lived in Kearney.

She continued to have work in exhibitions including in 1948 the 54th Annual Exhibition of the Denver Art Museum and in the All-Nebraska Show of the Lincoln Artists’ Guild. In 1950, she entered The Midwest Exhibition at Joslyn Art Museum, winning special mention for her sculpture, Jim; and in 1957, she again had an entry at Joslyn Art Museum, this time in a special exhibition. From 1963 to 1975, she and her husband were in Santa Ana, California where she taught elementary school and worked as a sculptor. This appears to have been the last of her major forays away from Nebraska. In 1975, she returned to Lexington where she gave private lessons and had numerous sculpture commissions. Among her subjects were distinguished Nebraskans such as Edward Creighton, whose portrait she did in 1983 for the Nebraska State Capitol Hall of Fame. For Lexington’s Heritage Week, also in 1983, she completed a group sculpture of prominent citizens titled Inheritance. In 1987, a retrospective exhibition of her portraits was held at the Walker Art Gallery at the now re-named Kearney State College.

In speaking of her long-time professional commitments to sculpting and to teaching, Phyllis spoke of her sculpture as being “representation in style, using the inherent character of the medium (clay) to guide me in the form and composition of the work.” Of being an art teacher, she said: “I have taught all ages from elementary to soldiers returning from the war and coming to Kearney on the GI Bill. I believe each person comes from a long history of the love of art. Art is natural and a part of all cultures and times. Each person holds hidden surprises and is creative and curious and desires to see what she can do. It is up to the teacher to support individually each student.”

Her work is included in such museum collections as Joslyn Art Museum, Omaha; Museum of Nebraska Art, Kearney; and University of Nebraska at Kearney. Memberships included the Western Art Association, Nebraska Art Association, and Nebraska Art Teachers Association, which she served as President from 1958 to 1959. Among exhibitions were Joslyn Art Museum, 1944, 1945, 1947, 1948, 1950, 1957; Museum of Nebraska Art inaugural exhibition, 1986; Nebraska Art Association Ceramic Exhibition, 1949; Lincoln Artists’ Guild, 1947, 1948; Sioux City Arts Center; and Denver Art Museum.

In 1995, Phyllis Aspen died at the PEO home in Beatrice, Nebraska.

The Museum of Nebraska Art has two works by Phyllis Aspen.

Museum of Nebraska Art files: Phyllis Campbell Aspen, a retrospective exhibition January 11 – February 6, 1987, Jim May Curator, Catalogue; handwritten notes from Carolyn Fairbanks; email from Russ Erpelding, ARTreach Curator, Jun. 17, 2014
“Sixty Years: A History of the Nebraska Art Teachers Association,” Nebraska Art Teachers Association, Web, Mar. 2014
Walsh, Stacey, Collections Manager, Sheldon Museum of Art, Lincoln, Nebraska, Lincoln Artists’ Guild Exhibition Information

Researched, written, and copyrighted by Lonnie Pierson Dunbier

Museum of Nebraska Art Project:
Their Place, Their Time: Women Artists in Nebraska, 1825-1945

View artwork
Phyllis Campbell, Young Girl, ceramic, 1944, 1977.01