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“A Real Renaissance Man”: St. Ambrose Art Professor Leslie Bell (Sort of) Retires After 38 Years - Page 2 PDF Print E-mail
Art - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 15 March 2012 06:34

Leslie Bell, 'Sisters & Twisters'

Bringing Out Authenticity

Bell studied at St. Ambrose under the legendary and demanding Father Edward M. Catich, who “released” Bell and some other students from the art program in 1967 for not meeting a two-sketchbooks-per-semester drawing requirement. After moving to the English department and then focusing on his band, Bell returned to St. Ambrose to finish his art degree.

The pair taught together for five years, until Catich’s death in 1979, and Bell noted the growth of the program during his own tenure of almost 40 years. In 1974, there were roughly 35 art majors; there are now approximately 135.

Under Catich, St. Ambrose’s art program was mostly a general one. There are now five majors: art education, fine art, graphic design, book arts, and art history.

When Bell was hired, he said, there were four full-time faculty members and an adjunct. Now there are five full-time faculty members with another soon to be hired in graphic design; adjuncts in four areas; and teaching assistants in two areas.

Bell doesn’t claim credit for this growth. He said that he and fellow art professor Kristin Quinn – the current chair of the department – have worked to augment Catich’s foundational system with more specialization.

“When he [Father Catich] died, it was like, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ He called a lot of the shots,” Bell said. “And it really took Kristin coming on a number of years later [in 1989] ... that we started to really hit critical mass. ... We had to build our own unique program.” Their different painting styles – his figurative, hers not – made them good complements, as they helped students see different approaches to the picture plane.

When she started, Quinn said, St. Ambrose “really taught the Catich curriculum, so a lot of calligraphy. Real strong in foundations – a lot of drawing, letter forms, a lot of art history. More of a general art degree – they did a little of everything. ... I think we just brought the curriculum more online with other programs” by adding majors to that core component.

That’s just one aspect, though. “One of the goals that Kristin and I set for ourselves a while ago was get more kids in grad school,” Bell said. “And then it became [to] get more kids in grad school with bigger scholarships ... . That’s really come to fruition in a cool way. ... Any person who has wanted to go to graduate school from our fine-art program has.”

He offered the example of Andrew D. Moeller, who graduated from St. Ambrose in 2005. He got an MFA from the University of Iowa and now works in New York City on his own art and as a technician for Jeff Koons.

“The people who are coming after him are doing similar kinds of things,” Bell said. “So we’re sending people to California and New York schools, and Chicago ... . That’s taken some engineering and some time, because that means that Kristin and I have to coach individual students a lot and write these intense letters of recommendation. But the payback is that these kids have been going out in the world and really causing a ruckus.”

After his St. Ambrose graduation, Moeller wrote in an e-mail, he was sleeping on friends’ floors and carrying around minimal possessions – “a change of clothes, cans of SpaghettiOs, and an answering machine so that I could be reached. (I couldn’t afford a cell phone.) Les and the equally terrific Kristin Quinn combined to offer me side jobs of stretching canvas and working the Catich Gallery desk that allowed me to survive. I ferociously made paintings all through the night in space that they were kind enough to temporarily let me work in. It was this time that I made the body of work that would get me into graduate school and get the ball rolling for me as a serious artist. Without this time and their support, I very well would not be where I am today.”

Local art educator Heidi Hernandez, a 2006 St. Ambrose graduate, wrote that “Les would always open class with deep thoughts – not like on Saturday Night Live, but real intellectual discussion about an artist or art-making in general. I remember in one of the first painting classes I had with him, he talked about the difference between being a serious painter versus a hobbyist – how you need to have drive and determination to paint all the time, especially when you don’t feel like it. This is something that lingers in the back of my mind when I find myself not painting and falling into the pattern many people do – work, eat, sleep. I strive to keep that ‘serious painter’ alive and look up to artists who devote so much time, as Les does, to their craft.”

“He has very rigorous standards,” Quinn said of Bell. “He’s very motivational. He’s an incredible role model ... . I think we have students who really come out as individuals, and Les is really so fantastic at getting students’ authenticity out. ... He’s really caring. He really knows the students, he knows how to push them, he knows their potential. It’s just a lot of one-on-one work we do here so we can really get them to open up to that level, to really mature their work.”

Leslie Bell, 'Night Competition'

Better at Fewer Things

These days, Bell works primarily in oils, but his current Catich Gallery exhibit Telling Stories hints at his varied career. The show includes 10 paintings finished in 2011 and this year, but it also features a series of photographs from the mid-1980s. “A lot of my students have no idea that I’ve ever been a photographer,” Bell explained. “But I was very intensely a photographer for years and showed on both coasts ... . So I thought it would be fun for them to see a completely different aspect of me – black and white, small, view camera, no enlargement ... .”

He mostly gave up photography in the middle of the last decade, a decision made in part because the advent of digital photography created barriers both as a teacher and an artist: To teach photography in this new age would have meant intensive learning of new tools, and the nature of digital itself erased for Bell some of the appeal of photography. The cost of a roll of film and a limited number of exposures forced a photographer to work carefully, he said: “I put a lot of value in finding meaningful information in the world within a frame and choosing that, and having the trip of the shutter be a decision that’s somewhat irrevocable. I liked the struggle of finding or building in order to be photographed.”

Bell is also a songwriter, guitarist, and harmonica player with a long history in the Quad Cities music scene, starting in the mid-1960s and including the band Music from the Orphanage (in the late ’60s and early ’70s). His last paying gig, he said, was in the late ’80s, as a member of the pit band for Big River at Circa ’21.

“I want to get my callouses back,” he said of spending more time with music in semi-retirement. “I want to write songs. I want to sing more. ... It’s been a long time since I’ve been in a band. ... I would like to see what would happen when I would add 30 or 40 years of intense listening to all kinds of music and to hang out with some other musicians ... .”

As a painter, Bell mainly worked in acrylics up until around 1994, when Sara Hanson – the woman who’s now his wife – “convince[d] me of what an idiot I’d been to try oil-ish things for 20 years with the wrong medium,” he wrote.

Quinn said she saw a major change in Bell’s work with that switch, particularly in the “luminosity and intensity of color and ... the variety of paint-handling.”

The decisions to shed other artistic pursuits, Bell said, were a function of “how excited I am about oil painting and the subjects I’m working with. ... I used to be all over the place. And I just found I wanted to be better at fewer things.”