“An artist cannot fail; it is a success to be one.”
— Charles Horton Cooley
How does a former sugar-cane company accountant from Brazil become an expressionist painter in Orem, Utah? Well, not without much difficulty. The story of Josie Bell — this year’s featured artist at the Woodbury Art Museum’s Art of Our Century exhibition — is one of tenacity, grit, perseverance, and inspiration. Drawing on her Brazilian heritage, deep connection to Amazonia, and fascination with the landscape of the American West, Bell’s work offers a spiritual experience to the viewer as she contemplates ecological themes through texture and pigment.
Although Bell’s formal artistic career began later than most, her affinity for nature was a constant that revealed itself early in her life. Her parents worked tirelessly to support their family on a rural plot of farmland in northeastern Brazil. While the conditions were harsh, and often strenuous, Bell came to deeply admire the relationship between her farmer father and the land. She recalls as a little girl her own connection to the natural world: “I used to talk to the trees,” she says. “I remember when we were about to move to Sao Paulo, I went out and was talking to the anthill and I was saying, ‘Hey do you think you could meet me over there?’ And I was really quite little, but there was something deep inside me even as a small child that just felt drawn to the earth, to nature and the land.”
Until she was 12, Bell enjoyed this rural setting, “a gift that I wouldn’t trade for anything,” as she has written in an artist statement. “The nights of sky, stars and full moon contemplation; the marvelous attempt to catch colorful butterflies by hand as they landed on the flowers around the house like a rainbow; the frequent visits of a hummingbird; the ripe, yellow mangoes we picked and enjoyed as children; the ancient trees I would stay around and talk to; the toys that I made with the rust orange raw-clay which I squeezed with my little fingers; fountains, streams and rivers were there as if from another dimension — all of this in front of me to play in and to enjoy.”
In her early adolescence, Bell felt a great desire to be creative and pursue an education. Since she was one of seven children in her family, this instilled in her a sense of independence at a young age. With a passion for learning and a maturity beyond her years, pursued living situations outside her home to pursue her education. At first, a kind widow took her in, and she was able to tend the children of another family during the afternoons and evenings and attend school during the day. This lasted for a year or two, until the widow moved away to live with her son and Bell was forced to find another situation. Undeterred, she did so, and continued her schooling year by year, moving from place to place, family to family until she had completed high school.
Though she says her artistic inclinations first came alive in her rural setting — “squeezing that mud-raw-clay, chasing the butterflies, or while chatting with the trees” — her first formal experiences were when she turned 13, after her family had moved closer to the city. “I remember attending an art class [in the equivalent of the 8th grade], where we were given an assignment of a colorful human-figure collage on a grid. I remember being so fascinated by it that I played with it for a long time.” When it came time to decide what subject to study at the college level, however, Bell realized that a degree in the arts could not provide financial security and chose to pursue a Bachelor of Education Administration. Through a serendipitous internship opportunity with an accounting firm, Bell eventually found a position working for a sugar-cane company. On the side, she sold jewelry and started a small preschool she ran out of her home with a friend.
Then things fell apart. After the closure of the preschool, the loss of her sister to cancer, and an economic downturn that forced her company to close its doors, Bell felt a strong desire to leave her native country. Through a friend, she made connections with someone in the U.S. and made arrangements to emigrate. “I had tried so hard to make it in Brazil, and nothing had worked,” she says. However, obstacles continued to present themselves. “I had my suitcases ready to go and then I got a phone call from my friend who said, ‘Josie, I am so sorry but the man who was coming to meet you just passed away from a heart attack.’” Devastated, but ever determined, Josie decided to leave anyway and found her own way to Utah.
Bell found more waiting for her in Utah than she had ever expected. She met the man who would become her husband, and, in an effort to improve her English, enrolled at Utah Valley University. She loved being in an environment where she could learn and thrive again, but still felt there was more for her to do. After the birth of her son, she went to the advisement office and told them of her creative interests. The adviser said, “Josie, why don’t you take a painting class?” And that was it. At 30 years old, Josie Bell was finally able to realize her potential as an artist.
Her experience in her painting class was facilitated by a faculty mentor who would later become a close friend. “My desire for texture was so intense. I remember saying to [UVU professor Catherine Downing], where can I find saw dust? And she would help me find the materials I needed, even though they were a little unusual, and Catherine would say, ‘Go for it.’ First it was sand, then sawdust, then marble powder, but all of this was driven from that intense desire for texture and my love of the earth.” Through her professional training and own artistic instincts, Bell began to arrive at her distinct textural and abstract style.
Although much of her early works were experimental, the artist can remember a distinct moment in her career when her work became imbued with meaning and driven by nostalgia. “When I started, I didn’t know where to go, I knew nothing. I was just there, doing the work. It wasn’t until 2004 [that my connection between the environment and my work] made sense to me. I remember doing this diptych and days later I sat in front of the work and engaged very closely with it. The presence of the Amazon was so strong. I thought, ‘This is an Amazonian lily.’ So I gave this name to the work. Since then, this connection with the earth has been so strong for me, the work, and my identity.”
Not all works reveal themselves that easily, she says. “There are two works that I don’t know if I will ever finish,” she admits. “Some works, after being finished, will reveal their titles … others never will. There are also those that are not ready yet for this world and they become only fragments. Sometimes they cannot yet stand on their own.” This respect for the process and timing of each work she creates comes from a deep reservoir of strength she has accumulated over the years in coming to her current state. After making every effort to be successful in her home country and feeling as if she had repeatedly failed she confesses that it was because she was not meant to stay there. “I’ve learned to let things go; that’s what life has taught me.”
Since coming to Utah, Bell has fallen in love with the quiet stillness of the desert landscape and the awe-inspiring mountainous regions. “I need to work indoors; it needs to come from me, but I am fascinated by the Utah landscape. I believe that the landscape is a gift from nature that nourishes the spirit and is there for everyone to enjoy, to embrace, and to care for. I feel the Utah soil is a very magical place to be: the canyons walls, rock formations, mountains, lakes and seasons — especially the snow season — it is all breathtaking. It has been such a privilege to live here and be part of it. I am so thankful that I can spend time with nature and be nourished by it.”
Bell works out of a studio in the basement of her Orem home, a place not simply to paint and get her hands dirty, but a sanctuary, a spiritual oasis for her creative process. “When starting a painting, the work is created through a soul level,” she says of her process. “I always listen to my inner voice and it is from that place where the forms start to emerge.” In the studio, paintings at every stage of completion rest gently against the walls. There is a sense of respect and order in the way she has hung up her smocks, categorized her pigments, and propped her works on bricks and concrete cinder blocks. Some pieces in their early stages lie as thin canvases on the floor, layered with drying mud and dust. Others stand tall after Bell has applied an eclectic palette of earthy hues — sea greens, sky blues, deep indigos, warm rusts, cool taupes. Bell’s work has a stimulating expressionist aesthetic, but simultaneously offers a detailed snapshot of a surface in the process of decay and erosion. A triptych leaning against a short north wall is of particular interest; apart from its organic cracked and grainy texture, the tones of the three side-by-side works strongly recall the soft, ethereal colorfield paintings of Rothko.
The works on display at the Woodbury will include a selection of the artist’s work over the last decade and will not disappoint. “I was initially attracted to Josie’s work by her personal story of her childhood in Brazil and the ways her personal experiences are interpreted both literally and figuratively into her compositions,” says Lisa Anderson, curator at the Woodbury Museum of Art. “Josie grew up in poverty with no access to any traditional art-making materials. Her capacity to use her imagination as a child to create art from sand, water, rocks, etc., led her to seek her eventual path as a contemporary artist.” This display will represent a survey of her signature style within the context of the exhibition theme, Shadows and Light. “Artistic depictions of shadow and light bend our perceptions of the real and the abstract, challenging how we view the world,” says Anderson. “In this exhibition, Josie combines these depictions with complex textural layers of paint and earth, symbolizing the ecological themes rooted in her personal experience and her spiritual approach to nature.”
This exhibition is Bell’s way of sharing just a fragment of her own profound feelings of gratitude and appreciation for the natural world and will serve as an homage to the Earth itself. “A few years ago, the work was getting really dark and harsh,” Bell says, “and so this display is really about the light coming in and an overall softening.” Each work, through a combination of poetic texture and earthy pigments, encourages reverent contemplation of our relationship to the land.
The artist’s childlike wonder and fascination with the land is captured eloquently in her work and is a quality that, despite the hardships of her life, she has retained since her youth. “I was so fortunate and grateful to have had those open spaces and to be surrounded by the natural environment and, despite the pain and losses that occurred at that time, it was an enchanting and beautiful childhood,” she says. “Those were the times that are still imprinted on my soul and are part of my inner voice in this call to paint.”
Art of Our Century: Shadows and Light, with spotlight artist Josie Bell, Woodbury Art Museum, Orem, May 14 — June 22. Opening reception, May 14, 6-8 p.m.
Photos by Shawn Rossiter.
Maddie graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in Music, BA in Interdisciplinary Humanities, and Minor in Art History in 2018. She has assisted in the curation of art and multimedia exhibitions throughout Utah–as a Curatorial Fellow at the BYU Museum of Art (2016-2018) and an independent curator (2013- Present).