Given we’re at the beginning of the year, I wanted to start by asking you if you made any New Year’s resolutions?

I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions. The best things happen when I just let them. However, when it comes to my work, I plan to continue spending more time in the studio. I am rededicating myself to making work including making a lot of work that won’t go anywhere but that’s the way to create the successful pieces.

Reflecting back on last year, what were some of the highlights for you?

Getting involved with The Road Gallery was definitely one of my highlights. Also, there were a couple of motifs that I came across that I enjoyed, visual motifs that I can develop and use in my work. In my personal life, I put a lot of time into my running. In the fall I ran the Milwaukee marathon and I am running Boston in the spring.

Prior to joining The Road Gallery, what other galleries had you been in?

I haven’t been showing in other galleries so this is a new step for me. In the past it’s been more of co-operative situations and pop-up shows. Moving ahead with The Road Gallery was a major step for me.

Was the absence of gallery representation by choice?

Kind of and kind of not. To some extent, necessity has dictated this. After college, I moved around quite a lot and I had my fingers in a lot of different creative pots: music, poetry, art. I think that’s true of a lot of creative people. They don’t just find themselves in one creative medium. Creative minds express themselves across a lot of different mediums. It’s a way to recharge. I had become fixated on the production of work more so than the business aspects and getting exposure. I have shown my work at galleries in Milwaukee, and in a couple galleries in Riverwest, which is an arts neighborhood here. I’ve also been in shows in Michigan and Chicago.

Two Navy Forms with Split Log and Coffee Pot (2015) by Jesse M Bell

What is the feeling like just before a show opens?

It’s exciting. Getting prepared for the show in the way you hang your work and present it is an integral part of the communication between the artist and the viewer.

How much is your confidence about your work tied up in how the audience reacts to it?

Part of the process and part of the content of the work is derived from that viewing situation. It’s difficult to know how work will be received and what the impression will be. Everyone brings something to a piece when they view it, be it a quick emotional response or a deeper meaning. A lot of what I do is applying images that feel right. The audience does the same thing. They are presented with something, they project onto that and take something away from that based on their life and their experiences.

What’s the most meaningful feedback you have received about your work?

Generally, it has been that people enjoy it and that it says something to them. Often times, it’s a feeling they get from the work. That means the most to me. Different people have different interpretations of the content. Any time you get feedback it means something to the artist.

Is there a single piece of work that you are most proud of?

Gray Mono Form with Bisected Cloud. I felt a breakthrough when I was working on it. I am very proud of it and have drawn a lot of inspiration from it for other pieces.

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Gray Mono Form with Bisected Cloud (2015) by Jesse M Bell

What were the circumstances around you producing that piece?

It was an inspirational breakthrough. You approach a piece with a general sense of where it will go, but you let things happen when you are working on it. Sometimes you struggle and sometimes it takes off. For this piece, I approached the panel and laid it down in one session. It has a looseness I had been looking for in the paint application that I think came through in the piece. I have learned over the last couple of years that to make a successful painting I have to deconstruct a previous painting and take parts of it to inform the new work. That’s the way I have worked over the last few years. The old painting forms the under-painting for a new piece. But in this case, it happened very quickly.

What are the origins of your style?

In college I was in a traditional visual arts program – still life, oil painting, printmaking with presses from the mid 1800s. You had to earn your stripes and work through a process of formal training. You had to learn how to paint before you moved into an abstract realm. That was a 20th century concept. I worked through that formal education. I had great instructors. From there, I attempted to distill my influences into the work. It takes me time as an artist to develop these motifs. I like to work quickly and there is a certain anxiety about what will happen with a painting. There is a lot of work that is started and not finished but that contributes to later pieces. I was becoming aware of art history during high school and college, the likes of Paul Klee and the abstract painters of the early 20th century, and later, abstract expressionism. In the last 10 years I discovered the British artist, William Scott. He has been a strong influence, his ability to move between still life and abstraction. He could move between those two worlds without any disagreement, which has been an inspiration to me.

What does the way you paint say about you and your personality?

I favor simplicity in my themes, which speaks to the way I feel about my life and my living conditions. As I have gotten older, I feel the need to keep things small. This is a current trend amongst people in general. It doesn’t have to be a small footprint, but I try to avoid excess. I keep the materials I need, I keep a small studio and tend to work on smaller pieces.

The strong visual elements in my work that I keep coming back to, those forms are circular or oval but with an organic quality. That may speak to me spending time outside. I live near Lake Michigan; the big wide expanses. That may have been an influence.

In the last couple of years I have read a lot about philosophy of mind, and the classical philosophers. I haven’t pinned it down but there is something that speaks to the mental, something automatic. Taking what I experience and making it into a visual form.

Bell at work in his studio

Tell me about some of the repeated symbols in your work.

They have evolved over time. The arrows symbolize movement and direction and are a part of an automatic process, directing the viewer and me towards something else in the piece. The kites and stars are a connection with nature or contemplation of universal ideas and something larger than the work within the world. Then there are the shapes that I don’t know how to describe that continue to show up in my work. The lines that cross in a certain way, the half domes – I keep them in a toolbox in my mind. They are like hieroglyphics or visual poems.

From the first moment I saw your work I was compelled by and drawn to the modernist and mid-century modern notes. Can we talk about that?

Yes, it’s what I am drawn to aesthetically and what excites me. I have an appreciation for the whole of art history but maybe I am a product of my time too. The modern aesthetic really appeals to me, from Miró and others of that era, up through abstract expressionism. That movement had a strong influence on me. I tend to take away some of the compositional elements of early 20th century work, as well.

I was also struck by the geometric and structural elements in your work.

William Scott was a big influence here. He bridged the gap between two schools of painting, between still life and abstraction. The way he was able to use organic shapes so well. In my title creation, sometimes it’s just that straight monograph description of what’s in the work. At other times, there are things that the painting gives, that suggests the title.

Navy Mono Form with Drops (2015) by Jesse m Bell

What does this mean for where you like to operate on the continuum between freedom and structure?

I like to operate where they meet, although those lines shift back and forth. When I go down the path of complete abandon, which a lot of painters like, I am not happy with what I produce. For me, it’s down to the way the paint is applied, how the underpainting is exposed. I can’t qualify and quantify those aspects. They evolve as I paint. I do use a sketchbook before I paint and build on motifs I’ve developed, but I try to give myself the freedom to let the piece go where it goes. The line pushes back and forth. I enjoy that feeling of applying paint in a complete freeform manner but there can be a heaviness and responsibility with that, and with the blank canvas. It’s a big investment and challenge to start with the blank canvas. The piece can end up being discarded.

I’m really interested and curious, what are the parallels between your work and you as a human being when it comes to where you fall on the freedom-structure paradigm?

I like things to be fairly structured in my life but not so much. It runs closely in parallel to the process I was describing when I produce work. I need my workspace. Home is important to me. It’s where my life is and where my work happens but at times I like to go on the fly, especially with travel. I pick a destination and just go. In my day-to-day life too, I work on a piece, break off and work on another piece, so in that way I like a certain amount of freedom, but structure brings some comfort.

Turning to your early years, what were some of the most significant influences that shaped the artist that you are today?

I have drawn for as long as I can remember. I can picture myself at four years old with a pen and paper. From seven or eight years old when people asked me what I wanted to be, I’d say I wanted to be an artist. I was lucky because my parents were always supportive of the arts. My dad was a maker, he was very creative. I learned from him how materials can be reused or used for something else. My mom has a strong sense of design and I have an uncle who drew. My brother was very musical and I was influenced by his creativity. My aunt worked in insurance and she would bring over these reams of perforated paper. My brother and I would create board games and drawings with that paper. I took a lot of drawing classes and went to art camps when I was young. Everyone you encounter in the arts influences you in some way. There was a lot of passion and support for the arts around me.

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From sketchbook to canvas

How have you evolved the most as an artist?

I have been honing in on what’s important to me in terms of what I create. I think a lot about the legacy I’ll leave after I’ve gone and what gets preserved. Building a cohesive body of work is what I have been striving for as I have gotten more intellectual about my work. That has been important to me. How does it exist after it has been put out into the world?

Why is having a cohesive body of work important to you?

Each piece fits into a larger narrative. I am continually formulating general ideas about the world and learning about new ideas and new things. I want to produce a body of work that is a collection of those things, my experiences and how I think about the world and the universe.

Definitions of success vary between artists. What does success mean to you personally as an artist?

Success for me is the creation of a strong body of work and a creative output that I am proud of fundamentally and that makes me and others happy. That’s meaningful. Having that body of work viewed and appreciated is also important.

What’s your view of the current state of the art world?

I’m appreciative of the new media. There are no rules for what artists can or cannot do. For many years we pigeonholed people but I appreciate the freedom that artists have now; whatever works for them creatively, goes. The Internet has been a big part of that. Sometimes I am a traditionalist even though I work in a contemporary style. I do like the craft still, a well-formed painting, especially when anything can be art. I’m almost overwhelmed because there is so much exposure to so much good work. There is access to so much beautiful work from all over the world. You see all across the spectrum and where you fit in that continuum.

Deep Viridian Mono Form with Yellow Buds in Pink (2014) by Jesse M Bell

What haven’t we talked about that you want people to know or that you want to say to people?

I’m glad we touched on process. The act of “making” is really important to my work and so is process. It is the painting to a certain extent. Without it, it wouldn’t do anything for me. The act of creation, the working-process, the physical application of paint is very enjoyable and important to me. The craft itself really excites me. I work very closely to my pieces and brushwork is critical. But I also apply the pigment and then stand back and take in the piece. I am one of those museum-goers that has to be reminded not to stick my nose so close to the work. The consideration of hue, the application of the paint to the substrate, and seeing the painting come to life is what excites me.

I’m extremely glad to be able to do what I do, to make these things. I’ve always been a creative person. I’m glad that I get to create this work. Art is universal and it’s one of the nicer parts of life to view and be around works of art. It’s both a human endeavor and experience.

I agree wholeheartedly. The power of art astounds me. You can walk past a painting and it stirs deep emotions in seconds whereas it could take watching a whole film or listening to a four minute song to move people in the same way. What is it about art that does that?

We are so visually responsive. It allows us to transfer our experience quickly and it allows us to feel or think what an artist was experiencing; it’s universal. It also allows you to have experiences that you’ve never had. It’s the universality of human nature. It’s something unique to the visual realm that can have that impact. You feel it first and then find out what is it that causes that type of deep emotional reaction.

To see more work by Jesse M Bell, visit his collection in The Road Gallery.