Stepping back

by Michael Tilley ([email protected]) 93 views 

Sandwiched between the recent recollections of national basketball championships and the great nationally-televised football event with Texas comes an artful 44-year reunion between John Bell Jr. and the University of Arkansas.

Don’t expect corporate sponsorships and breathless over-the-topistry from local television sports anchors for this reunion. This a quiet story of steps. A vignette, really, in the larger context of individual steps of adapting and institutional steps of change.

Bell returns to the campus Sept. 11 as part of a reception celebrating his exhibition of paintings in the Main Lobby of the Mullins Library at the university. UA Chancellor David Gearhart will speak, a sign that Bell’s exhibit is a significant part of a campus which has only six exhibits a year in this premiere campus location.

His return is part of a 44-year cycle begun with a university leadership having little knowledge or sympathy for a student struggling via wheelchair from class to class. To say Bell was an original during his days as a UA student and is an original now are to speak of the unknown and known, respectively.

John Bell certainly doesn’t have to be reminded, but it is the power chair movement that brings the visitor to his Fort Smith studio back to a realization of the inconsiderate palsy Bell overcame to struggle past the ordinary accomplishments of the often ungrateful healthy, and to the amazing career he now enjoys.

The art, however, is an equalizer in that its appreciation requires no knowledge of what enables or disables the artist — or of what disabilities enable the artist. As it does when knowing that Pollock and Van Gogh were mentally unbalanced and Picasso was an undisciplined sex fiend, the art is richer when knowing of Bell’s challenges.

The mind of this artist — wrapped in a hip mischievousness that casts doubt on his claim of being 72-years-old — is what the military might call 5-by-5, or clear on all points. What’s more, there is a By-God Bravado hidden just underneath the easy smile, slow fuse and quick wit. It’s as if the universe delivered the palsy and then dared him to overcome. He took the dare, cleaned his Augean stables and now carries with gracious transparency a well-earned chip with which he now dares the universe to dare again.

Movement is, however, the important element to the “landscape” art of which Bell is often categorized. It’s important because Bell says it is — the histories and geography he captures in buildings and scenery are enhanced he says by the “spirit” of the horses, automobiles, trains, trolleys and people who inhabit the sidewalks, streets and trails of his canvas. The merchants and shoppers in his downtown Fort Smith paintings, the U.S. Marshals riding through eastern Oklahoma and the lawyers and citizens around the Washington County Courthouse are the small elements that give life to the bigger canvas.

That Bell is sensitive to the benefit of movement to his art is a low-hanging irony. The ease with which we might grasp the irony is matched only by the difficulty in appreciating the path with which the irony is delivered.

Unsure about his career prospects, Bell and a friend — Perry Grizzle, who had just returned from a stint with the U.S. Army — decided a university college degree was a good idea. It was around 1961 and Bell, 25, would need all his youthful vigor and resolve. Bell, who at the time was not using a powered wheelchair, selected a college campus with hills and dales that still today challenge able-bodied students.

“I had some adventures,” Bell recalled with a laugh. He laughs now, but with a quick dart of the eyes back to the studio visitor that suggests there was nothing funny about the situational currency of the early 1960s.

Bell, who married wife Maxine in 1962 and honeymooned in the Mountain Inn (now a hole in the ground) near the Fayetteville square and the old Washington County Courthouse, lived about a block off campus — with the campus being on a higher elevation.

“I would get myself to the sidewalk, to the edge of the street, and there were always students walking by and they would push me to the top of the hill … and then someone else would take over from them and get me to the right building,” Bell explained.

And there were all those damned steps.

“This was back in the dark ages, you know, back before ramps and ADA (Americans with Disabilities Act requiring handicap accessible facilities),” Bell explained. “There were always steps … but I was usually able to perfectly time it where a football player or two would get me up and to an elevator or to the (class) room. I’d always wait for the proper amount of people to help me with the stairs.”

Sometimes the people weren’t proper.

To complete his courses in the college of education, Bell needed a credit hour in active physical education (PE). That was a physical impossibility for Bell, but the head of the education department would not allow Bell to take a credit hour in another course.

“He looked at me angrily as he said, ‘No. You’re not any better than anyone else,’” Bell recalled.

With his By-God Bravado, Bell told the PE instructor of his dilemma and the department head’s unwillingness to budge.

Sometimes the people were proper.

“That (cold rejection from the education department head) made him (PE coach) angry and he said, ‘Bell, you help me organize the class and pass the tests and we’ll get you through this.’ So I became an assistant coach. Me,” Bell said with a head gesture to his power chair, inviting his studio guest to consider the sight of a young student in a wheelchair coaching a PE class.

It just so happened that Bell’s first education course was taught by the man who wouldn’t waive his PE requirement.

“And I remember thinking, ‘I’m going to pass this class you old SOB!’” Bell said. And he did.

Bell lobbied university officials to build a ramp for the Union Building where he had to travel each day to eat. They finally agreed, but constructed a ramp too steep and, believe it or not, required steps to reach.

“They just didn’t get it,” Bell said. “For a long time, I was the only one on campus in a wheelchair. I just wasn’t a priority for them.”

Don’t think ill of the situation. Bell doesn’t. It’s possible he appreciates the personal growth that came from his struggles; from his desire to adapt and overcome. College is like that for many students. Bell was no different.

“It’s not the same school now,” Bell said of the UA. “The attitude is different now. That world has changed, and changed for the better.”

Bell’s view of the world began to change in high school in Fort Smith. It was then he began to realize his talents were unique and, possibly, a ticket to a career that in the mid-1950s was limited for those in a wheelchair. He produced the art for his 1954 senior yearbook. Principal Farnsworth privately asked Bell to paint for him a scene of a New England covered bridge. A flattered Bell gladly obliged. A few weeks after Bell delivered the painting, Farnsworth handed Bell what he thought was a note. It was a $50 check. Bell, happy enough to know that an adult admired his work, was not expecting payment.

“That’s when it clicked. That’s when it became obvious. I thought, ‘This is what I’ve got to do to earn a living, one way or another,’” Bell said, recalling the epiphany.

And so it was. His charcoal drawings of his fellow UA students — made while they ate in the Union Building’s cafeteria — would sell for around $5. He drew murals. He designed landscapes and buildings for model railroad makers. He’s designed furniture fabric, church windows and silk screen designs on glass.

Roy Acuff was many years ago presented a special fiddle during a ceremony at the Grand Ole’ Opry. A portrait of Acuff was on the back of the fiddle, which is now in the Country Music Hall of Fame. Bell was the portrait artist.

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. Just recently he completed a commissioned work for the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith. Of all his work, he has but one of his original paintings displayed in his Fort Smith studio.

“That’s good, because it means all the others sold,” Bell explained with a wide grin.

Bell expects to have 13 original pieces and seven prints at his UA exhibit, which runs through October. Molly Boyd, public relations coordinator for the library, said exhibits are selected by a five-person arts committee.

“What we do try to do at the library is to get art exhibits that will stimulate art discussion among the students. We want art that is different, or something that is challenging, something that will expand their education in the field and realm of art,” Boyd explained.

Boyd said the reception (2 to 4 p.m., Sept. 11, at the Mullins Library on the UA campus) is open to the public. She said Bell’s art also will find space on the library’s Web site.

Jim Caldwell, director of the Pine Bluff United Way and a friend of Bell, lobbied for Bell to be an exhibitor.

“I don’t do that (request shows),” Bell said. “But he (Caldwell) said I should be there and I guess he was serious about it.”

Bell is serious about the show. He’s all but confined himself to his studio for the past two months, intent on showing the artistic steps he has taken in the past 44 years.

“It will feel good to go back to my home university, to my alma mater. I think it will feel good to go back and be considered a professional artist,” Bell said.

Yet, he’s nervous. Today’s university students and the contemporary art crowd may not appreciate his artistic stylings, he worries.

“They might say, ‘Oh, there’s another landscape artist or another whatever,’” Bell said, mimicking the musings of an art snob. “What’s popular today is the abstract art, the stuff where you throw paint around on a canvas.”

The studio guest does not share Bell’s worry. While impressive, the exhibit is another step in his career, and Bell’s art and life is replete with beautiful movement around steps.