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“A Real Renaissance Man”: St. Ambrose Art Professor Leslie Bell (Sort of) Retires After 38 Years PDF Print E-mail
Art - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 15 March 2012 06:34

Leslie Bell in his office. Photo Corey Wieckhorst.

One minute, St. Ambrose art professor Leslie Bell is talking about his paintings – mostly allegorical scenes featuring women and girls. The next minute he’s talking about his students – especially the female ones – without having shifted gears.

“On a really basic level, I’m trying to kindle a spark of quirky individuality in each person I paint,” he said in an interview last week. “I don’t want them to come across as generic. And ... through body language, environment, to a lesser extent facial expression – because my characters tend to be a little bit on the deadpan side – even fashion or dress ... I want to communicate a kind of self-made-ness.”

He then says he doesn’t want to be cheesy – the simplistic idea that girls can be carpenters or play chess: “I want it to be more what we deal with everyday in the studio, which is following what you’re interested in, sort out the ‘should’ voice in you ... , acknowledge that there is peer pressure and that there are societal pressures and that there are laws, but then make as much use of the freedoms that you have to cultivate your interests, develop your interests, don’t be ashamed to be an intellectual, fight me as a professor ... .”

One can see that shift happening even more quickly here, in a single sentence: “I want my work to be really affirmative of women’s and girls’ abilities to create themselves, to stick to their own ideals, to find ways of proving to whoever might be skeptical of what it is to be a woman artist or just a woman that there are as many paths to maturity as there are people attempting to mature.”

This conflation is illuminating, as Bell’s artistic interest in female experience and identity seems inseparable from his teaching responsibility to help young artists develop their own voices. He notes that well over half of the students in the St. Ambrose art department are women, and it’s easy to infer that his painting is akin to homework, a way to develop empathy and connections with his female students. They’re also a way of leading by example, of showing through art a path to authenticity.

But the teaching comes at the expense of his painting, and Bell wants to focus on his art. After 38 years teaching at St. Ambrose – from which he also earned his bachelor’s degree in 1972 – the longtime professor is semi-retiring at age 64, cutting his teaching load in half in the fall. “I think 38 years is a good run,” he said. “It’s really an intense commitment to a single organization. ... I just dedicated myself to St. Ambrose.”

Leslie Bell, 'Text Message'


Bell called the reasons for his retirement from full-time teaching and its timing “complex,” but he quickly said he wants to dedicate more continuous time to painting. “I love oil painting,” he said. “I don’t have enough time to do it as much as I would like to and to perfect it and to become more ambitious with my use of it.”

Bell said that he loves his job, but it hinders his ability to grow as an artist. “Semester starts, everything [with painting] stops. Semester ends, I try to prime the pump, get back in the studio. And it’s a complicated process. It takes a month just to re-establish my connections with all the tools and some of the rudimentary ideas. And I don’t want to be working with rudimentary ideas. I want to develop them in a much more mature way.”

It’s not merely the physical process of painting to which he plans to dedicate himself; he also said he wants to work on the intellectual underpinnings of his subjects. “I like to think of my work as really strongly but subtly feminist, and there’s a lot of stuff I want to read about,” he said, giving as an example a book about the societal pressure on girls and young women to project sexual availability. “I’m interested in being part of the solution,” he said. “I feel like I need more academic information from other fields to give me insight into what my paintings are about. Because I paint people doing things, thinking things, interacting, and I want to make sure that I’ve got the ammo to get that right.”

Bell, who said the decision to cut back on teaching started more than five years ago, also cited reasons beyond his own artwork.

“I guess I’ve seen people hang on indefinitely and take out their same old tired syllabus,” he said. “I wanted to be lively all the way through my teaching career. I wanted my students to be challenged at a level that I felt like they were getting their money’s worth. I don’t want to come in distracted. I don’t want to come in tired. I just want it to be action-packed.”

And he emphasized that he’ll be leaving St. Ambrose’s art department in good shape. “The programs are all going gangbusters,” he said. “It seems like we’ve ironed out a lot of bugs. I’ve been chair enough to be not in charge but at least at the helm at times when we made some pretty major decisions about what the program was going to look like. Now those have had the chance to run through multiple cycles and become quite effective. ...

“Retirement at a point where the department is really clicking ... [is] a lot more exciting than bailing out out of desperation ... .”