Mostly in their own words: After traveling the world, Barbara Camph finds an OASIS in Harrisonburg

Editor’s note: This is the first in an occasional series called “Mostly in their own words” from contributor Martha Woodroof. The series will focus on the people across the community who help make Harrisonburg the place that it is.

By Martha Woodroof, contributor

Barbara Camph is an ebulliently creative person of a certain age with purple hair and an infectious laugh. 

Barbara Camph and her famous purple hair. (Photos courtesy of Barbara Camph)

Barbara has worked in stained glass for decades, creating intricate, colorful pieces for herself and others. Yet she still shies away from calling herself an artist. “I’m not interested in art for art’s sake or art for my sake,” she says. “What I do is about enjoyment. And community. About working with people who know each other.”

The world is littered with Barbara’s communities. Before moving to Rockingham County seven years ago, she lived—not traveled, but lived—in Indiana, Germany, Northern Virginia, England, the burbs of San Francisco, Portugal and the mountains of Panama.  Barbara came here—to her sister and brother-in-law’s Rockingham County farm”—seven years ago after her husband’s death.

“My sister is a force of nature,” she says. “After Tommy died, I was a mess, and she commanded I come here.” 

Barbara’s sister and husband were here because they both fell in love with the area when they were students at JMU. They bought the farm when they decided to stay put, and Barbara ended up deciding to say put as well. She designed and building her current house on a snippet of her sister’s land. And—perhaps more importantly to Barbara—she hunkered down in yet another community of local artists.

Barbara is a member of Harrisonburg’s OASIS Fine Art and Craft, an artist’s co-op whose approximately three dozen members live in the Shenandoah Valley.  “I do many of the administrative things because I’m good at them and”—cue infectious laugh—“nobody else wants to do them,” she says. 

Describing her peripatetic existence, Barbara comes across as more of a how-can-I-be-useful serial nester than a gypsy. She talks a lot about helping to organize the local activities and festivities of her various home communities; about using her formidable organizational skills to get something done that needed doing. 

Tommy and Barbara on one of their adventures.

The adventure began …

As an adult, Barbara’s chief partner in adventure was Tommy, with whom she had “gobs of friends and gobs of fun.” And gobs of adventures. First as music-and-baseball loving Bay Area professionals (she, as a contract administrator; he, as a mechanical engineer), and then over the course of a couple of well-planned, well-considered, years-long oversees decampments.

Their first decampment—to the town of Silves, in southern Portugal—was motivated by what Barbara calls a “mutual mid-life crisis. Tommy and I wanted to have a new experience before we were too old to do it.” 

For some (most?) of us, abandoning well-paid secure careers for life in place where our job skills are not transferrable might seem—well—overly daunting. Barbara, however, remembers it as an adventure. 

“Tommy and I both figured we’d somehow make a go of it.  I was ready to clean houses if I needed to. Of course, in a poor country nobody’s going to pay you to clean their house. So that was unrealistic. But having faith that I could do what I needed to do sort of carried me.”

They bought land, built a house, moved in. Then they needed to earn a living.

“We knew we had to do something. So I took my hobby—stained glass—and made it my business. Tommy was mechanical engineer, so he was very meticulous. As he had a hankering to work with wood, he ended up making high-end furniture.”

Barbara, as she so often does, quickly shifts from talking about herself to talking about others. 

“So many people helped us. I’ll never forget my very first craft market. I’d never done one before and I had no clue. At that craft fair I sold one pair of earrings and that pair of earrings was equal to the cost of my entry fee. The woman dropped them and, naturally, they broke, so I gave her another pair. But, at that craft fair I met so many people that started us on the cycle of knowing people and getting orders for doing things and recommendations and you know… I always say you never know what’s going to happen. That craft fair turned our fortunes. From there I found a co-op to join, Tommy got all kinds of orders that sustained us. From then on, we were never not busy.”

Portugal to Panama

The Camphs lived in Portugal for 11 years, came back to the States for two months, then got the adventure itch again.

“We decided we would buy a van and drive the Pan American highway looking for the next place to settle. Why not, right? We had the van converted, loaded up the cat and the litter box in van and headed out. It took us four months to drive from Brownsville to Panama. We were looking for a house we could live in, in a country we liked. I have a fear of large cars, so Tommy drove, and I was the navigator.”

They settled in El Valle de Anton, a mountain town two-and-a-half hours from Panama City and used by rich Panamanians as a weekend getaway. Why Panama? For a couple of very practical reasons. 

“You could drink the water,” Barbara says. “Plus, the American dollar was used as the currency, so there were no exchange-rate problems.”

During the week, El Valle de Anton belonged to its full-time residents ,whom Barbara describes as a combination very poor Panamanians and other, mostly retired, middle-class expats. She was soon doing her organizing thing, cheerfully herding her fellow transplants into recycling and road trash pickup programs that still exist today. 

At some point, she decided to take on the wall—a 33-meter, graffiti-covered store wall that greeted you as you came into town. 

“That was really before email and Facebook, so the American Embassy used the warden system to reach out to American citizens living in foreign countries. They recruited volunteers to pass information from Embassy to locals. Tommy and I volunteered to act as wardens, so the Ambassador used to our house to talk with local Americans. It was during one of those talks that we heard the claim that graffiti can be the start of crime. Whether or not this is true, I drank the Kool-Aid and believed. So that graffiti-covered wall really started to bother me.”

 She got busy organizing her fellow expats into doing something about it. 

“We cleaned the wall, painted it white, then worked with a local Panamanian restaurant to run an art contest with local kids. They made small drawings, and we selected all of them to be drawn larger on the wall. We bought the paint, we sectioned off the wall, got ladders, got artists to teach the kids how to scale up. For a long weekend the kids painted this long mural, stopping traffic, people bringing food, people bringing drinks, people taking pictures. The wall still exists today, and that makes me feel really good.”

The universal language of art

Barbara was also part of a group that got a local foundation to fund art, music and dance classes, for local kids. 

Barbara taking a break from her work at OASIS.

“That same foundation approached me and wanted me to do stained glass windows for a church. This seemed wrong somehow to me because I was an expat, and this was a Panamanian church. So the foundation gave me approval to give classes for Panamanians who were interested in learning about stained glass with the understanding, that when the classes were done, they would help me build the window. We installed the first two before Semana SantaThose kids were so proud.” 

That, however, was not the end of Barbara’s involvement with the El Valle Catholic Church. Fast forward through the difficult years of Tommy’s illness, during which Barbara and he returned to the States. After Tommy died and Barbara moved to Rockingham County, she decided to go back to Panama to see friends. 

“Since I was going to be there a couple of months, I approached the foundation to see if they’d like me to organize a few more windows. They were all for it, so I found two of my previous students—Roberto and Jose Luis, both of working  as carpenters—who wanted to help me build a second set of windows. I have wonderful video of them installing the finished windows. They’re way high up on ratty-looking scaffolding pulling the windows up on ratty cords.” 

Barbara was impressed by how good her former students had become at stained glass. ““When I came back to the States, I was talking to a friend of mine, saying how sad it was because they were really talented at stained glass, and they had no access to tools. My friend asked me how much money they would need to buy tools. And she wrote me a check to buy tools which a friend of mine took to El Valle and had a big celebration for them. That is so heartwarming to me, that they got what they needed to keep making stained glass.”

As always, Barbara Camph is as quick to duck credit for those windows, as she is for or anything and everything she’s been a part of—here, there, or anywhere. “It wasn’t me,” she says, “it was a gang of people. I helped organize it.”  

Despite her many contributions to far-flung—and local—artistic goings-on, Barbara Camph is probably most easily identified around the ’Burg as the woman with the purple hair. So what’s that about?

Big infectious laugh.

“It seemed like all of a sudden I was collecting purple clothes. I first realized this when my sister-in-law gave me pair of purple boots, and I thought how observant of her. How nice. But I didn’t do purple hair until two years ago. I’m very gray and my hairdresser tried dying my hair, and I washed it out because it just wasn’t right. I looked like an old lady trying to look young. Just too much that color. So it was my hairdresser who talked me into going purple.” 

Barbara Camph grins like an aging imp. “It was not a hard sell.”

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