Some painting joy from my home state of Wisconsin right here! Love these abstract paintings by Milwaukee-based painter Jesse Bell, whose imagery and palette harken back to midcentury American painting while incorporating fresh twists. Here we chat about his lake-view studio in the city, and what he describes as "visual poems." More info at the links after the interview!
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First, I'd love to know more about you! Where are you from, and where are you based now?
I grew up in Michigan, attended school there, and now I live in Milwaukee, WI. I’m a block from Lake Michigan and get to look at it every morning. It’s a great city; I love it here.
What first interested you in painting? Do you have any significant influences or mentors who have impacted your work?
I've been interested in art for as long as I can remember; since a young age I've always wanted to be an artist. I first started with drawing and only later moved to painting—really concentrating on it when I entered college. My work has grow from there, taking a lot of influence from early- and mid-20th century abstract artists.
Can you tell me about your practice? One way you've described your work is as a "visual poem" -- can you elaborate on that?
Sure. I’m an abstract painter working mostly in acrylics, gouaches, and watercolor. My work will often drift into non-objectivity, but I hesitate to label myself as a non-objective painter because so much of my work is informed by landscape, still life, and narrative. I use a lot of iconographic markings and have a collection of line and shape elements—such as arrows, lozenge forms, and hatching patterns—that I use to imply movement, narrative, and association. I often think of my paintings as “visual poems” in that they combine snippets of description and observation to tell a story or suggest a scene. The work itself is purely abstract, but I always hope to have it possess a secondary layer of narrative; for it to convey a feeling of a story or place. Many times I won’t fully realize that story until I title the piece. I always feel like that is when “what the piece is about” is revealed to me.
What is your process like? How do you get started? Do you plan ahead, or work more intuitively?
I typically work in an additive process. I’ll generally start from preparatory materials that I’ve been collecting, such as sketches, but often quickly begin to deviate from these original ideas. Other times, I’ll work right on the substrate, composing as I work up the piece. Frequently, shapes and arrangements begin to suggest themselves as the work takes form. I also employ a lot of sgraffito as I paint—essentially using palette knives as a stylus in the wet pigment—to form compositional elements. The one thing I’ve found to be true in my process is that, to achieve a fully realized painting I almost always have to quit a piece, hang it up, and look at it for some time—that could be a couple days or it could be a couple months—and then come back to it, working right over the original piece again using its current composition to inform the final painting. I really never know what the end product will be until I know I’m done.
What is your studio space or workspace like?
I have a small studio space in my apartment that I work from. It has a lot of light and a great view of the lake. I’m primarily an easel artist, working on smaller- to medium-sized paintings, so I work well in a smaller studio. I also have a large table for prep and works on paper, and I use a section of it as a taboret. I love to work on several pieces at once and that tends to leave the space a mess. But it’s a productive clutter.
Is there a tool or object in your studio that you couldn't live without?
I have a thin-bladed palette knife with a great point that I use all the time. Of course, the majority of the painting I do is with brushes, but I use that knife for a lot of scratching and drawing.
What do you do if you find yourself in a creative rut?
I view art. Either out at the museum or images. I always get so inspired when I see great paintings, and when I take that energy back into the studio, I’m usually successful at breaking through a creative block. I’ve also found that just going in the studio and getting to work, even if I’m not having much luck, or am frustrated with the results, will often eventually help me produce something I’m happy with.
Is there a piece of advice that you've received, which you find yourself coming back to? Any advice you've received that you chose to ignore, and been happy you did?
I had a painting instructor in undergrad who really encouraged me to push the abstraction of my work farther, and to explore where I wanted to go with it. I trained in a fairly traditional program, so it was really liberating to have that encouragement to pursue the work I wanted to make. Most of the bad advice I’ve received comes from me! I tend to be my own worst critic.
What do you consider to be the most challenging or daunting thing about pursuing art seriously?
Having the confidence to keep painting even though sometimes it can seem so difficult and discouraging. There is always the euphoria of new work and new ideas, but sometimes after you complete a piece you begin to have your doubts about it. I always want to be in the studio, so there is also the process of staying disciplined and sharing the work with the world. The excitement of creating another piece is always there.
Do you have any upcoming exhibitions or projects you're currently working on?
I’ve just finished up a new group of paintings that I’m really excited about. I’m in the process of shooting them and exploring exhibition opportunities for this year. I’m also working on a group show for this spring.
Anything else you would like to add?
I just want to thank you for the work you do here. It’s a wonderful glimpse into so many artists' thoughts and methods. Glad to be a part of it. Thanks!
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