Long time artist and Valley resident, John Bell has an upcoming show of artwork at The Artful Dodger in Downtown Harrisonburg. Bell, who has had a large impact on The Valley’s art scene as an artist as well as a teacher of other artists, will be exhibiting a wide array of works on canvas.
After earning a BFA from Indiana University of Pennsylvania and an MFA from JMU, John Bell began teaching Art at Blue Ridge Community College in 1990 and has been there ever since.
Back in 2001, I was a student at Blue Ridge and when deciding my electives, chose John Bell’s Art History course. It was quite an introduction to the history of human creativity since the Renaissance. I found his lectures to be inspiring and incredibly knowledgeable. Most of my knowledge of Art History I attribute to Mr. Bell, but more importantly, my interest in the arts that continues to this day is largely of his doing.
During a recent art opening I saw John Bell and asked him to do an art show at The Artful Dodger where I work. He agreed. So I am writing this article to firstly: alert the public to the special occasion of John Bell’s art show at the Dodger, opening August 6th at 6 pm during the First Fridays Downtown Gallery and Museum Walk.
Secondly, you may have never seen Bell’s work, or not known it was his when you did, so I’ve decided to describe the qualities of his art that I feel make it truly great. I will do so by using the format of an assignment he gave me almost a decade ago for my Art History course.
The assignment was to go to a gallery and pick a painting to copy in our notebooks, then write about. I will spare you my drawing of his painting because the point of drawing someone else’s painting, as Mr. Bell taught it to me, is to SEE their work. “Drawing is seeing,” he often said. Here is my essay describing what I saw in his painting “Turning Point” (pictured here), note that I have turned it in on time.
Art History II
Relationships seem to be something John Bell is avid at creating and highlighting in his paintings. In themselves the paintings are the relationships between his vision, execution and composition. The paintings also create a relationship with a time and place which in turn relates directly to the viewers, especially viewers from The Valley.
Bell’s superb talent for creating these relationships is further elevated by the result, which is somewhere between representational and non-representational art. At first sight we can look on “Turning Point” or “Roadside Mythology-Ice Men” (also pictured here), the way we look at a Rothko or Kandinsky painting, enjoying them for the aesthetic quality of the lines, shapes and colors. Yet we can look deeper into what is represented in the paintings and what this knowledge may lead us to as well.
In “Turning Point,” he image of a Black Walnut Tree is silhouetted against a colorful sky, which is a sort of icon in Bell’s work. It is something I’ve seen repeated in his paintings, and rightfully so, it is a beautiful image. It is a sight any Valley resident could see, but Bell applies his own nuanced vision to it.
The way in which he represents the tree and the sky to us viewers seems to give the sky a fractured appearance, as if the tree was not a tree, rather cracks in the very sky over our heads. The tree however, is not a mere silhouette. Like a good black and white photograph, there is detail in the shadows. But there is still much more to this image. Like the detail in the tree, his ability to layer several images over each other is testament to his experienced level of executing his vision of a painting on canvas.
Layered almost like a double exposed photograph are several arrow signs denoting a turn in the road, perhaps around this very tree. Through his controlled excecution of this layered effect, the painting becomes an intricate play of tonality as some arrows appear hollow, allowing the sky to protrude through them, while others are less transparent and thus darken what part of the tree and sky they lay over.
Despite all the layers and images on this painting; however, it is highly composed and organized. If at first sight the painting feels disorienting, it is this controlled compositional technique that brings the viewer to a state of seeing, understanding and visually consuming the artwork.
What do we see/understand/consume? That is far too subjective to answer definitively, but I can say that I personally see relationships; Relationships whose sum is equivalent to beauty and intrigue.
After enjoying the beauty of this piece, and due to its subject matter, I am inspired to think of the times we live in and the relationship our civilization has with the natural world around us. I am immediately aware this is our civilization and our natural world; we’ve all created what is. This encourages me to further ponder so many things, both concrete and abstract: whatare we doing? What will happen to the natural world in the future? Are we an extention of nature, or separate from it? To what degree? etc., etc. This line of thinking compounds further, and is a direct result of my viewing his painting.
I believe this is what great art does, starts you off on your way to something other than the ordinary. An idea, a thought, a revelation, etc., it is not necessarily in the painting, but in the relationship between the painting and viewer. It starts with the painting gripping our attention and retaining it, mesmerized by the beauty of it, while forcing us beyond some distant horizon to contemplate something too abstract for words. The relationships in “Turning Point” creates this scenario well.
So it seems very appropriate that Bell depicts signage as often as he does, because his paintings work the way signs do. They lead us, point us in a direction, but with the intention of inspiring the profound contemplation of our world that is so easy to go about our days never thinking about. The fact that Bell’s paintings do this, is what I believe makes them great.
This post was submitted by Paul Somers.