Editor's note: Story updated with quotes from officials and a brief obit.
Popular and acclaimed artist John Bell Jr. died early Friday morning at his Fort Smith home. He was 76.
Bell diagnosed with a gastric cancer in August. His wife, Maxine, said he finished a painting for the 75th anniversary of Baldor Electric Co, and began treatment in mid-September. Maxine said during a brief interview that the cancer treatment was tough on his body.
“The chemo just took its toll on him,” she said.
Maxine said despite the cancer and the treatment, John was doing well mentally and they were looking forward to their 51st wedding anniversary on Nov. 21.
“Yesterday morning he was in good spirits and we were laughing about some things, but I could tell he was having some problems medically,” Maxine said.
She said John did not respond when she tried to wake him Friday morning.
Bell’s art works are in many homes, businesses and art galleries around the country. He’s been invited to exhibit his works at one-artist shows in many cities, including Little Rock, Memphis, New Orleans, Omaha and Washington, D.C.
Bell also painted an image of Roy Acuff on special fiddle that was presented to the legendary country music entertainer. The fiddle is now is part of the collection at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.
Bell has been commissioned to do work for numerous individuals and institutions, including the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, the University of Arkansas, First National Bank of Fort Smith, Baldor Electric Co., and Subiaco Academy. Bell’s work was also a key element in a television documentary about War Eagle Mill that was produced by Larry Foley, an Emmy Award-winning professor of journalism at the University of Arkansas.
Bell was a graduate of Northside High School in Fort Smith, and the University of Arkansas.
For more about the life of the artist, link here for a profile of Bell that was published Aug. 30, 2009.
UPDATED INFO: Bell said on his gallery website that his introduction to art was from a effort by his mother to keep him busy.
“As a child I was shown how to draw stick figures to keep me entertained while my mother went about her chores. This sparked a fascination with the arts that has lasted throughout my lifetime and taken me through several professional careers: illustrator, product designer and fabric designer to name a few,” Bell explained.
As to his many paintings of Arkansas scenes, Bell said he was attracted by the state’s beauty and history.
“Although I have visited our country from coast to coast, I was born and raised in Arkansas. I have a keen appreciation for the beauty of our state and the character of her people; and as a result, most of my paintings consist of Arkansas scenery and turn of the century Arkansas cityscapes. Old postcards, early photographs and on site photography are part of the research into each composition. All of these elements are combined to capture a moment in time that you can almost remember even though you may have never been there.”
University of Arkansas at Fort Smith Chancellor Dr. Paul Beran said Bell was “always an incredible professional and gentleman” when working with the university on a commissioned piece and art exhibit.
“John Bell will be missed not only as an exceptional and talented artist, but also as the premiere graphic historian for western Arkansas,” Beran said, adding that Bell “had such a positive attitude about life.”
U.S. Sen. John Boozman, R-Ark., praised Bell for his perserverance.
“John’s impact on Arkansas will be long lasting. He brought the images of the region to life though his work. We are blessed by John’s wonderful art which will serve as a reminder of his determination, perseverance and achievements. My thoughts and prayers are with his wife Maxine and his family and friends during this difficult time,” Boozman said in a statement.
U.S. Rep. Steve Womack, R-Rogers, also commented on Bell's passing.
"While I am saddened to hear of John Bell, Jr.’s passing, I am grateful that his art will continue to be treasured by the people of Fort Smith and throughout the entire country. My prayers are with his family,” Womack said in a statement. “He was a very gifted artist, and his ability to freeze moments for eternal enjoyment and reflection was unique.”
Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders issued the following statement:
“John Bell was a tremendous artist, a knowledgeable historian, and a gracious man. His work reflected his talent, expertise, and the light within him. His work came from the heart. People who view his work in places like the Country Music Hall of Fame and in private collections around the world can see John’s talent for capturing Arkansas’ rich history. His paintings are not merely depictions of buildings we recognize in the Fort Smith region. His work evokes feelings, sounds, and aromas of the past.
“John Bell has been an inspiration to me, and to so many others. In 2007, John Clark (then director of the U.S. Marshals Service), visited my friend in his modest Fort Smith studio. Physically, Mr. Clark towered above John. Later, Mr. Clark commented that being in the presence of John Bell was a humbling experience.
“His magnificent talent as an artist and his indomitable human spirit has made a lasting impression on all who have been touched by his talent.
“On behalf of the citizens of Fort Smith, we extend our condolences to Maxine and the entire Bell family.”
University of Arkansas Chancellor G. David Gearhart, who spoke at Bell’s September 2009 exhibit at Mullins Library at the University of Arkansas, called Bell a trailblazer.
"I was deeply saddened to hear about the passing of John Bell, Jr. I am a big admirer of his work. Though confronted with difficult challenges, he always seemed to see the best in things and capture it on a canvas—particularly the best of Arkansas. He was a trailblazer here on campus, and we are proud to have his name permanently etched on Senior Walk,” Gearhart said.
INITIAL OBIT FROM THE FAMILY
John Bell, Jr. 76, of Fort Smith, Arkansas passed away on Friday, November 08, 2013 in his home. He was born in Fort Smith, Arkansas to John and Lillian (Sweeten) Bell. He was a well-known artist of Fort Smith having painted many local landmarks. He was a member of St. John’s Episcopal Church.
Funeral services are 2:00PM, Tuesday, November 12, 2013 at Ocker-Putman Funeral Home Chapel. Cremation will follow the service. Arrangements are under the direction of Ocker-Putman Funeral Home of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
He is survived by his wife Maxine of the home, one daughter, Lisa Jean Murphy of Conway, Arkansas; one brother, Jimmy Earl Bell of Fort Smith, AR and one granddaughter.
The family will visit with friends from 5-7PM Monday, November 11, 2013 at Ocker-Putman Funeral Home of Fort Smith, Arkansas.
Memorials may be made to the Literacy Council P.O. Box 423 Fort Smith, Arkansas 72902.