Remembering John Bell, Jr.
Remembering John Bell, Jr.
When John Bell Jr. died last month, he left a great inheritance to untold thousands of art lovers, friends and people who may never even have known who he was, but have admired his work.
John's art is, of course, his biggest public legacy. He has practically painted Fort Smith's history, especially its downtown and other landmark businesses, buildings and churches.
But although you can bet he always thoroughly studied the history of all those subjects, it was his ability to capture the essence of the people, sounds, colors and action surrounding those inanimate objects that never fails to pull viewers right into the canvas.
Anyone who already owns any of his art – most of it sold in limited editions – will surely realize now more than ever how truly special it is. But it was John Bell the man – and his equally wonderful wife and best friend, Maxine – who will never cease to amaze me.
I really didn't know much about him until I was a sophomore in high school – back in 1957, when Northside was still Fort Smith High School. The first time I remember seeing him, he was in his wheelchair at the bottom of a stairwell (no wheelchair ramps back then) with a big smile on his face, surrounded by a bunch of laughing teenage guys jostling and joking over which of them would get to take John up the stairs.
I can still see the grin on his face that day and it never fails to make me smile. John's smile, and his keen sense of humor, were just two of his qualities that made you want to be around him. Anyone born as physically handicapped as he was could have used that as an excuse not to smile, much less tackle projects anywhere near as difficult as ones John learned to master.
I'll also never forget passing by the art room that year and seeing John bent over drawings in progress – his face barely inches above his work with his hand holding his pen or brush pressed against his cheek to keep it stable. I could never understand how he could even see what he was drawing. But he apparently already had in his mind's eye exactly what he wanted to produce and how to accomplish it.
When our 1958 yearbook came out, I was really stunned. For some reason unknown to me at the time, there was a Chinese theme in all the artwork for each separate section. And every bit of it was intricate, detailed, original artwork by John.
During that time, there was a fad for “Confucius say ... ” quips going around, and each separate section of the yearbook’s artwork included a takeoff on that. For instance, the quip for my sophomore class page’s artwork was “Chinee say: Smallest form of life in school – sophomore.”
It wasn't until a few years ago, while I was visiting with John and Maxine at one of his art exhibits, that I got to find out why he had tackled such a laborious task for that yearbook. It seems the student in charge of the project had told John to just produce some simple sketches for the yearbook and John's artistic senses were so insulted he was determined to do better than that. And he certainly did!
John went on to produced many important works of art throughout his career, of course. But I hope anyone who still has a 1958 Fort Smith High School Bruin will treasure it for its original John Bell art as much as I do.
I lost track of John after he graduated ahead of me in high school and I graduated, married and lived in other states until my husband and our children moved back here in 1983 and I became a reporter at the Southwest Times Record. I have so many stories I could tell about how John and Maxine have inspired me, and others, since then. But I want to save what little space I have left here to show you just a small example of John's 1958 Bruin artwork that you may not otherwise have the opportunity to see. I think John would like that.