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“A Real Renaissance Man”: St. Ambrose Art Professor Leslie Bell (Sort of) Retires After 38 Years - Page 3 PDF Print E-mail
Art - Feature Stories
Written by Jeff Ignatius   
Thursday, 15 March 2012 06:34

Leslie Bell, 'Pisces'

Power Figures

As many will say, though, Bell’s painting is already highly accomplished. His work is in the collections of the Figge Art Museum, the Erie Art Museum (in Pennsylvania), the State of Iowa, and the Ohio State University, and it has been represented in galleries in Chicago, Atlanta, and Tampa. He’s had shows in California, Colorado, Georgia, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia. And Bell has gotten grants from the Iowa Arts Council and Quad City Arts, and a regional-visual-artist fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts through Arts Midwest.

“He’s a really brave painter,” Quinn said. “He’s always making the paintings teach him something. I think that’s really a good hallmark for our students. He doesn’t take the easy route.”

She also said the hard work is apparent in the paintings themselves: “He’s really brazen. He makes radical changes. Paintings get painted, unpainted, repainted. You can see questioning going on. You can see past life in the work. You can see it evolving. ... It almost feels like there has been an era that has happened in the work. They evolve; they’re not just pictures. It’s almost like they’re little worlds.”

The worlds in Telling Stories, Bell said, are smaller, however – a hint at how teaching and life have restrained his art.

Leslie Bell in his studio. Photo by Sara Bell.He said he had a plan last summer to do smaller paintings “and then springboard into some larger paintings.” But because his family had to clear out and sell the house of his deceased mother-in-law, “I just had to say – and this was a little hard for me to say – ‘These will not be quite as ambitious as the paintings I was hoping to get to this summer, but I want to be satisfied with that. ... I want them to be more essays than highly accomplished short stories.’ I decided I wanted them to be a little tighter, a little more descriptive, a little more detailed, a little bit less gestural and expressionistic just to prove to myself that I could do that. And that they could also be wonderful for what they did contain rather than being weak because of what they didn’t contain. ...

“Not only are they smaller, but they’re simpler, there are fewer figures, less complex compositions, less painterly in terms of broken color, variety of sizes of brush marks, and all of that stuff that delivers emotional messages. And I sort of polished smaller stories, and actually I’m pleased with them. Even the color is less diverse. ... But I like the variety of them.”

Despite being less ambitious, they retain Bell’s intense focus on young women. He described his subject as “that transitional phase of going from girlhood – which is not as innocent as people give it credit for – to kind of the stable, mature identity, and all of the complexities in there.”

I’ve long been interested in that aspect of his work – a man mostly painting women – and I’ve broached the subject with him several times. Last week, I said to him, “It seems like you’re making your job harder by choosing the subject you’ve chosen.” He replied: “That’s for sure. ... I’ve had a lot of problematic incidents in past – [but] rarely coming from women.”

Some people have viewed his choice of primary subject – combined with his matter-of-fact use of nudity and sexuality – as sexist. He said that he once got a formal letter from a prominent local attorney about a show at Quad City Arts, saying he wouldn’t let his wife or daughter see the exhibit. “It was really scary how much anger this man had,” Bell recalled, “but it was such a superficial read of my work.”

The problem Bell creates for himself is operating in a culture of the sexual objectification of women without censoring himself – in other words, not responding to that context by sterilizing his work. “My big struggle in these paintings,” he said, “is that the whole issue of the male gaze has been such a big problem since the ’60s – it’s sort of like an institutional course of study to see how men have looked at women ... – and I attempt to be very respectful of that. But at the same time, I really don’t like the notion of a de-sexualized woman, of a woman who has sort of lost her sexuality in order to be able to perform in a painting. So I just want aspects of sexuality and sensuality to be a part of the deck. ...

“I am really trying to be a force for the good, a force for getting issues on the table and discussing them no matter how awkward they are. So a lot of the static I’ve had in the past, I’ve really tried to open up the doors of conversation with the people who had issues. And sometimes it’s worked better than other times.”

Quinn didn’t hesitate when asked about Bell’s choice of women as subjects. “I think he sees them as powerful, and I respect that,” she said. “They’re power figures.”

Leslie Bell, 'A Smoke on the Water'

A St. Ambrose Legacy

Given that Bell was a Catich student, and that their St. Ambrose careers spanned four decades each, I asked the sort-of-retiring art professor about his legacy compared to his mentor’s.

Bell stressed that the Catich influence, with its emphasis on drawing, letter forms, and art history, remains alive at St. Ambrose. “All of us, full-time and part-time, regard that heritage with a lot of pride, and see the need for it,” he said. “We’ve worked pretty hard to keep the hand in letter forms. To keep the finesse of Father Catich’s drawing skills alive. ... Part of it is to honor his tradition, but part of what makes Father Catich’s tradition so wonderful is that it’s as flexible as it is.”

The art department conducts a curriculum review every five years, and part of that is talking to people in the design community. Bell said he regularly hears that the basics of art are essential: “‘Please, make sure you keep teaching art history. Make sure these kids can draw – confidently, academically, yes, but also be able to stretch that ... .’ It’s never gone out of fashion.”

But building on that legacy was also crucial, Bell said. “I think part of the reason why he [Catich] hired me was because he knew I would do things differently, and that I was bringing news of a different world to here. And we didn’t have a painting program. When I studied painting at Ambrose, it was watercolors – small – and it was about design. So I wanted to bring a contemporary fine-arts sensibility.”

Still, Bell said, “I will not have a legacy comparable to Father Catich’s, that’s for sure. But my legacy was based on Father’s legacy. Not Father as a calligrapher or a graphic designer, but taking my admiration for what his program stood for and continuing to modernize or contemporize that.”

Quinn, however, had no problem casting Bell and Catich as equals – while acknowledging the likelihood that her statement would be seen as heretical: “I think he is comparable to Father Catich ... as far as the breadth of interest, the breadth of training. He’s a real renaissance man, and that’s what Father was. ... He advanced the legacy, I believe. ... He is going to be so missed.”

Leslie Bell’s exhibit Telling Stories runs through April 20 in the Catich Gallery inside St. Ambrose’s Galvin Fine Arts Center (2101 Gaines Street in Davenport).

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