Henry David Thoreau wrote: “Not till we are lost, in other words not till we have lost the world, do we begin to find ourselves, and realize where we are and the infinite extent of our relations.”
When I first read Walden; or, Life in the Wood two-and-a-half decades ago, I was struck most profoundly by that one sentence and the larger concept Thoreau puts forth that we have wandered away from our true, natural selves.
I don’t think that means we all need to leave our homes and our jobs and move to the woods, or that we must let go of everything materialistic or man-made. To me, the statement is more about returning to nature. It’s about reconnecting with the natural world rather than imposing our will upon it and presuming dominion over it. Allowing ourselves to be part of it again. For when we slow down and do connect with nature, we tend to reconnect with an essential part of ourselves.
During a recent phone interview with artist Julie Bell, I alluded to Walden Pond and to that connection to nature. Julie replied, “If I can’t sleep, I listen to Walden Pond.” I’m not surprised, as Julie possesses a special gift for not merely capturing an image from nature so precisely that it could be a photograph, but also for connecting to the natural world in such a way that she allows us to do the same when we engage with her paintings.
Spend a few moments with “Phoenix.” The way Julie is able to recreate the light and shadows, the scars, mane, stray hairs above the eyes, make it look so real, but it’s the lion’s facial expression—which to me is regal and magnificent—that also suggests a feeling, an emotion.
When I first wrote the above paragraph, I included which emotion I had inferred, but I think it is better if you study the painting yourself and experience for yourself the emotion being conveyed.
What do you see? How does the painting make you feel?
I decided to hold off on revealing what I perceived because I was, I suppose, projecting my own story onto the lion, as we all tend to do when we encounter art. But, in stating my story, I might also change yours and I want you to experience Julie’s art for yourself.
How often, after all, do we sit down and study wolves or tigers? How often do we get that chance? Of course, how often do we allow ourselves to slow down and connect with nature in any way? According to Dr. Michael Cohen, on average, “a person in contemporary society lives over 99.9% of his or her life devoid of conscious sensory contact with attractions in nature. We spend over 95% of our time indoors. We think, write and build relationships while closeted from nature.”
Every time I get outside or spend time interacting with nature in some way, it also allows me to connect to some part of myself. Yoga does this, as does writing and other types of creativity—allows us to momentarily shuffle off the myriad adornments in which we have cloaked ourselves and to just be present . . . to just be.
I studied Ecopsychology briefly and Thoreau’s concept of the “infinite extent of our relations” seems the foundation of that field—that all things are connected. Renowned naturalist John Muir wrote “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world.”
In order for Julie to create such moving paintings, she needs more than technique and prodigious painterly skills, which she certainly has. She also needs to be able to connect with the animals she studies, with the world around her, and I think that rare talent comes through in her work. That is what touches not just my mind, but my emotions as well.
Erwin Schrödinger stated: “The task is . . . not so much to see what no one has yet seen; but to think what nobody has yet thought, about that which everybody sees.”
It’s not about seeing something different, something uncommon, but about seeing something common in a different way.
Many of us have seen a horse in person, though we may not have seen a wolf or a lion that way. Julie has spent a lot of time in and with nature and after only a few minutes of talking with her, I could tell she genuinely loves animals. Deeply. She seems to see the animals with which she has connected in ways that are beyond what the rest of us might typically see, and she allows us the chance to share her vision through her art. I thank her for that.
Below is part of the phone interview I had with Julie. I hope you enjoy reading her responses to my questions as much as I enjoyed talking with her. And I especially hope you take the time to explore her wonderful paintings and, perhaps, reconnect with a part of yourself in the process.
OTHER COOL BIRDS: Young Adult author, Jacqueline Woodson says that writers tend to focus on the time in our lives we’re still working through. Is there an element of truth to Woodson’s claim as it relates to you or your work?
JULIE BELL: “I would say when doing illustration work, some, but more so in my personal work. Right now I’m in such a great place. And I know what it’s like to not be in a great place. So, I’m celebrating the amazing world we’re in. That’s where I am right now and where my work is at.”
I love how Julie’s response opened a door I hadn’t even thought about with regards to Woodson’s statement. The idea that “working through” doesn’t necessarily have a negative connotation. That it’s not necessarily an obstacle we’re trying to overcome or to move past.
We can, as Julie intimates, be working through our celebration of the amazing world we’re in. And that certainly comes through in paintings like “Lakota Language.”
When I asked Julie how long she has been interested in art and what about creating art spoke to her back when she first started, she said she felt from an early age that she was destined to become a professional artist.
JULIE: “When I was a kid, I really enjoyed any time I got to do anything with art. I thought at the time that everybody felt the same way. After time, though, I got to be the artist in the group. People would come to me for something they wanted to have drawn.”
She continued by mentioning that early in her life, she moved a lot, and went to several high school and colleges.
“In different high schools, I picked up on my love of art. Teachers treated me special. One even had a giant closet and told me that could be my studio. She didn’t teach me art. She was a potter. But she gave me space. . . . Things like that can change your life.
I would paint things. I would copy photographs from National Geographic.
It is very soothing to me to be doing it, to be creating. The feeling of putting paint or pencil down and making whatever you’re doing at the time, the physical motions, the study of color as you’re going along. That’s such a center for me, that feeling.
How good it felt is what kept me there.”
Despite how it felt, and how natural it seemed to her, Julie admits that she never knew anybody who had been a professional artist. “Just teachers,” she said. “When you have never known anyone who did the thing you want to do, it has no reality to you. How does a person get there?
At home, I didn’t take myself seriously enough to try to go to a nice arts school. I went to community college. But some of my best teachers came from there. I went to a lot of different colleges and always felt like I should have gone to some art school. But I think it depends on how open you are. There were good teachers even not a traditional arts school.”
Julie also suggested, later in our conversation, that not following a traditional fine arts path might have had it’s own benefits with regards to her work.
“Illustrators in general,” she said, “especially those who work in realism, have to develop a skill, I think, that is more rigorous than you generally see at fine art schools.
As a fine artist, you’re the artist and you do what you want. When you illustrate, though, you are working for someone else and you have to do what they want which requires a mental toughness. You need to have a set of chops that is way beyond what is required.
Thanks to my illustration background I have more control over what I am doing, and I’m able to bring a higher degree of realism.
There’s an interesting division,” she added, “between fine art and illustration, but realism is becoming more accepted. For a long time it was cast aside and seemed sentimental. The big money in the art world is in abstract work. But a lot of illustrators now are moving into fine art, realizing that they can do it.”
When I asked Julie to comment on something about art that “non-artists” might not understand she said, “It’s hard for me to understand when people are not artists. I have to constantly remember this, as it takes me by surprise when they say they’re not artists. I really do just see the whole world as completely different.”
I imagine that surprise is not too dissimilar to what others experience when the thing they see is perceived differently by someone else. And I think that is one of the most profoundly fascinating and important aspects of any art.
“My eyesight isn’t 100% perfect,” Julie admitted. “I see things fuzzy and I like that and I use that sometimes in my art. I can get transfixed by these things. For example, let’s say there’s a public bathroom with a floor of tiles made out of stone, each different, with beautiful colors—subtle green, red, gold, black—and each one looks like a pairing of something else. I’ll be in the bathroom taking photos of these rocks on the ground, these different stones. It takes me by surprise that other people don’t see things the way I do.”
That goes back to Schrödinger, I think. And although having an artist’s “eye” is, perhaps, to some degree an inherent ability, it also seems to be enhanced and honed through practice.
“I used to make comics with friends,” said Julie, “and tattoos. I was obsessed with comics, but the Archie kind not superheroes (though she has done some cool superhero work as an adult). Doing the art made me feel special and I just loved it. I loved looking at things and would get carried away looking at things.
If I’ve been looking at art,” she added, “or I’ve been to a museum, and then I go outside into the world, I see people and I start staring at them. And I know you can’t do that.”
She has hinted at a fine line of what may seem socially acceptable when it comes to watching others. But what she’s really talking about is noticing people, studying them. She notices the world and studies it. She wonders how she might recreate it in her work.
“I love looking at trees and clouds,” she said. “What is that color really? How does that light go like that?
Even when I went a long time without creating art, I felt like I got better when I wasn’t doing it because I was still practicing in my mind.
I’m usually thinking about how does that light do that on their nose? How do I get that color to work there.”
I mentioned that I do the same thing with my writing. I’ll study people, as do most good writers I know: eavesdropping in public places, taking momentary mental photographs, doing character studies (trying to think of just the right words to create a character sketch to use as a reference later), trying to imagine how I can describe that laugh, or that particular gesture with the hands, or how I can convey the sound of the old woman’s voice as she titters at the small child, or how to capture that tender facial expression the old woman has when their hands touch.
According to John Dillenberger, a “discipline of seeing does not come by being told how to see, though that may be helpful, even necessary; it comes primarily by seeing and seeing and seeing over and over again.”
Julie has seen and seen and seen. And doing that allows her to also see things in other things.
To recognize the shape of one thing in another. It allows her, to some degree it seems, to see multiple possibilities. That’s why, when she’s walking on a city street with friends, she might start to laugh, to the bewilderment of those with her. Because of how she is able to see.
“Art does not reproduce what we see. It makes us see.” – Paul Klee
Most of us catch glimpses of the world around us as we hurry from one activity to the other. But what happens when your primary activity requires seeing? When it requires you to slow down, to outright stop moving and to actually see?
One thing seems to happen when it comes to Julie Bell’s representation of what she sees. She is able to provide the realism, the intricate details that make her subject look real, but she’s also able to bring more than that into her paintings. She is able to convey, or at the very least to evoke in me, a sense of emotion. And that, I think, takes a special sort of seer.
“The artist, Picasso claimed, “is a receptacle for emotions that come from all over the place: from the sky, from the earth, from a scrap of paper, from a passing shape, from a spider’s web.”
We’ve all done it – seen a whale or a bison or some sort of giant cloud animal in the sky. Julie does that all the time. She sees a thing, but is also able to see other things as well and, as a result, to sense emotions and to feel other things. I try to do that when I write, try to find a way to describe something with metaphor or simile, to use an entirely different thing to help the reader see and imagine and, hopefully, feel something unexpected when I describe something familiar or common.
And that is another reason Julie’s art resonates with me. Beyond the beauty of the piece, it’s the way she is able to get me to see, to experience something in a way I may not have done on my own, and as a result to feel.
One of the reasons I believe I am so compelled by visual art is the aspect of story and the element of “showing” rather than telling.
Janet Burroway, in her book, Writing Fiction, states that the job of the writer is to “show” a scene by using words in such a way as to create a “felt experience” in the mind of the reader—to evoke an emotional response. Julie’s art does this—even paintings like “Secrets” or “Shadows” which don’t focus on the entirety of the horses. They still, quite masterfully, reveal a scene, and create a sense of felt experience.
At one point in our conversation, Julie alluded to imaging that she is preparing for an art show “that’s going to take place 200 years from now at this museum of earth culture . . . and I want people to be able to go to that show and to look at my art and connect with exactly the feeling I get when I do the art and when I look at the animals . . . like time travel and information travel . . . an amazing link from now until then.”
In a way, that’s what art does, I replied. It teleports us. To a different time, a different moment, but also into different lives and experiences and perspectives. It allows us to see and to think about something familiar, like life, in a different way. To experience it, albeit briefly, in a different way.
And that’s another thing about Julie’s art that also resonates with me. The way I am teleported to a particular moment—like with “Pride” or “Nonie”—and am able to witness an exchange of tenderness or vulnerability, that I may not have ever otherwise seen or experienced.
“When looking at art, we must use our eyes,” wrote C.S. Lewis. “We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way.”
OCB: Does your work reflect your personality in some way?
My fantasy work and my animal work. A big part of me is a mother to my kids. I have always felt the fantasy work had a real strong need to give a sense of empowerment to the person looking at the work and to the person in it—the sense of dignity and beauty, but also their deeply emotional life.
I went through a lot of painful things in the early part of my life and I do think that made me feel more understanding of other people and I like to bring that into my work. To give respect to other individuals who have a right to be who they are and to feel what they feel.”
Julie is, of course, describing empathy, which is not just one of the personality traits I admire most in people, but is also essential to an artist’s ability to do the sort of emotional teleportation to which I alluded earlier.
A former bodybuilder, Julie has respect and love for the human, physical body. And creating art, for her is another physical outlet. “It is a self-soothing thing,” she says. “It gives me this physical comfort. I feel that’s my natural thing.”
It’s difficult to describe, sometimes, how doing the thing that is innately who you are feels so fulfilling, so rewarding. I understand this, though, for writing makes me feel that way. It goes back to Thoreau’s comment about how we have moved away from our natural selves. But it also has to do with honoring our creative selves, which is another thing we often learn to move away from as we grow older. As Picasso claimed, “all children are artists. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
Allowing yourself to slow down, to spend time in and with nature, to connect with the world around you, seems to be one way. To reflect upon and represent that experience, to recreate it through art, seems another.
John Muir wrote, “I only went out for a walk and finally concluded to stay out till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in.” In addition to going outside, that is what yoga does for me, and writing, and experiencing beautiful art like the wildlife paintings of Julie Bell.
It allows me to journey inward, to reconnect with parts of myself, which often brings with it a special feeling of contentment, of completeness, of wholeness I never even knew was lacking.
“What is art but a way of seeing?” – Saul Bellow
OCB: If you could work on any art project (illustrating a book, developing a personal idea, working on an historical piece) what might it be and why?
JULIE: “I wouldn’t change a thing. I want to just keep my path alive, breathing, and growing at its own free, natural, and expansive pace.”
OCB: Aside from your main website, are there any specific websites with your work that you’d like me to link back to?
JULIE: “Boris and I have a Facebook page together and I have an individual page, but I try to stay a away from it. Facebook seems to have a magnetism to it that activates part of your brain that is addictive.”
I have to agree with that, having spent half-an-hour of my writing time this morning skimming the Facebook pages of my friends instead of working on new poetry. You can find some of Julie’s art work on her Facebook pages, though.
I have focused mostly on Julie’s wildlife paintings here, but I am also a big fan of her fantasy work and the work she has done with her husband, Boris.
The me of fifteen or twenty years ago may not have even ventured beyond that fantasy work to explore Julie’s wonderful wildlife paintings, as fantasy stories have always spoken to some part of my deep-down self, to my soul, to that part of me who feels different, and who has always been on a quest of sorts, a journey of discovery and of understanding my place in the world.
Fantasy, to me at least, is another way of telling the mono-myth, set in fantastical worlds of endless possibilities. It is an unleashing of the imagination that is grounded, to some degree, in the heroic quest. It is that combination of wonder and adventure that captivated me when I first started reading on my own. And it speaks to me still.
I mention this because, while I hope you will admire Julie’s stunning wildlife paintings, I also hope you’ll seek out some of her fantasy work, especially if you have a love for that genre as I do. I hope you’ll explore her art and find the pieces that resonate most with you. The paintings or illustrations that allow you to see something a bit differently. And, hopefully, to feel something as well—a connection to some aspect of the world around you and, perhaps, to yourself.