MBELLART Weekly. Interview with Michael Bell by Isabel del Rio

MBELLART Weekly. Interview with Michael Bell by Isabel del Rio

Interview on Yareah Magazine by Isabel del Rio, art historian.

Hi Michael, as always, a honor to interview you for your weekly section on Yareah Magazine. Last Wednesday, we started to talk about portraits and portraitists. Since you are a celebrated current portraitist, your point of view about the subject interests me and I would like to keep on delving into the topic.

M.B. -Sounds great.  And how fitting, because I just spent the weekend working on a huge commissioned portrait.  I’ve spent 10 hours Friday, 13 hours Saturday and most of Sunday on it.  It’s one of the biggest portraits of my career.  I’ll share it once the time is right…

I.R.- I love your explanation about 1883 Sargent portrait: Portraits d’Enfants or Daughters of Edward Darley Boit http://yareah.com/1484-portraits-interview-with-michael-bell-by-isabel-del-rio/ , about the metaphor and prophecy that it encloses: little girls with a destiny already written. I know when you painted Amanda Todd portrait, you treated to make something nice, some solidary painting with the friends and family feelings. And yes, it’s true that Amanda is smiling but she seems to be flying among purple hands in a different world. What is the prophecy here?

M.B. – Thank you Isabel.  Sargent was the first one who came to mind when talking “prophetic paintings.”  Another is American Portrait Photographer Annie Leibovitz’ infamous photograph of John Lennon and Yoko Ono, taken just five hours before he was shot to death in Manhattan.  His pose, assuming the fetal position, naked, leaving the world as he entered it – and her dressed in black says it all.  This photograph made Leibovitz famous. (Leibovitz’s portrait of John Lennon and Yoko Ono in 1980)

The Amanda Todd painting I did was more reactionary than prophetic, although I’d like to think the painting prophesizes all the lives she’s still touching, and all those helping hands are representing the outreach she wouldn’t have been able to do, globally, otherwise.  We’ll just have to see.  It was my way of giving form and meaning to something unspeakably tragic.  Since I had a sister that passed away at birth, also coincidentally or not named Amanda, and because I work with kids around Amanda’s age on a steady basis, the story immediately struck a chord with me.  It’s why I believe paintings can be so powerful, because they can convey what often words fail to accurately describe.  They say what words can’t say.

Michael Bell. Amanda Todd Portrait

Michael Bell. Amanda Todd Portrait

The purple hands were literally hundreds of kids “leaving their mark” for Amanda on my canvas, which will each echo in eternity. This collaboration painting also sparked to a community-wide “Empathy contest” where students in my area submitted hundreds of written entries to me, ranging from a short story to a 140 character tweet.  A judging panel was formed and multiple winning entries were paired up with National Art Honor Society students from the local high school, who then went on to illustrate each author’s story.  The works were later exhibited together at ArtQuest, a nationally sponsored, professionally student art exhibition at Southern High School, and published in the school’s Literary Magazine. It’s collaborations like these (art + writing) that probably drew me to start reading your magazine in the first place.

I believe in collaboration art, and wish more artists would collaborate.  This is one of many collaboration paintings (below) I created with a long-time artist friend and collaborator, Michael Sprouse (http://sprouseart.com) for a painting auction.  I met Sprouse back in 2002 when he owned Eklektikos gallery in Washington, DC (from 1994 to 2002).  He developed a unique niche in the early 90’s painting haunting portraits of “the departed.”  He’d get his inspiration from vintage photography, more specifically from found and discarded old family photographs of people long forgotten and he would re-construct a narrative about them through paint, color and expressive brushstrokes, and while doing so – breathe life again into these departed souls.

Below is a collaboration painting we did by choosing two random photographs and combining them into one image, to create a conversation between the two images as a constructed narrative.  I chose a polaroid photograph of Zoe Zeman, an adult-film star I was friends with at the time, and Sprouse chose a vintage photograph of Jean Harlow from the 1930s, who died tragically during the filming of “Saratoga” in 1937 at the young age of 26.  While these paintings may or may not be(come) prophetic, we both must use a certain level of psychic intuition to try and piece together a loose narrative, all the while, trying to figure out why fate led us both to choose these particular women to paint.

Below is an interesting video clip from a two-man exhibition that chronicles the making of these collaboration paintings in Michael Sprouse’s studio for the art auction/exhibition (about 6 minutes in).

[jwplayer mediaid=”31674″]

Michael Bell and Michael Sprouse,“Always will”, 22” X 28” acrylics/canvas

Michael Bell and Michael Sprouse,“Always will”, 22” X 28” acrylics/canvas


portrait of all mankind. Do you think the metaphor can get so far or I’m exaggerating? Have you ever tried to portrait the whole mankind?

M.B. – Well, let me start with Cézanne.  While I’m not a huge fan of painting “still-life” for the sake of still-life, his actually do create excitement for me too.  They have a certain magical energy to them.  I think it’s because, while many painters in Cézanne’s inner circle were busy being concerned with the effects of light and reflected color, he remained deeply committed to form.  He used color like a draughtsman use line, as a descriptive tool for constructing the form of something. As for exaggerated metaphors, look no further than to my artist friend, Eric Fischl, who I mentioned in my first weekly interview with you about New York:  http://yareah.com/1429-mbellart-weekly-interview-about-new-york/

Eric just released his new autobiographical memoir, which bears the title of his most notorious painting (below), “Bad Boy: My Life on and Off the Canvas” and funny as it may sound, the way he explained this painting to me, it actually began simply with a painting of a bowl of fruit (in the bottom right corner of the canvas), which later takes on a metaphor entirely of its own!

And no, I’ve never tried to paint a portrait of all humankind.  Although, you want an interesting project for your readers?  Challenge them to create a family portrait without using any family members in the painting, using only objects as metaphors to best represent each family member.  Everything from size, texture, color, content and ultimately composition all matter to help share the narrative of the family dynamic.  This takes still-life to a whole other level.

Paul Cézanne – “Still Life with Apples,” 1890 Oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 18 1/8 inches)

Paul Cézanne – “Still Life with Apples,” 1890 Oil on canvas, 13 3/4 x 18 1/8 inches)

Eric Fischl, “Bad Boy,” 1981, Oil on Canvas, 66 x 96 inches

I.R.- Opposite, some critics have said than an artist has only a portrait: its own portrait and its works are always reflecting its own mirror. What do you think of this statement? Have you got a self-portrait?
I believe that’s true, for me, at least. I only paint what I know. And I’m sure there’s some reflection of “me” in whatever or whoever I’m painting, whether it’s intentional or not. I think for this statement to be completely true these critics must be speaking of artists who have officially “found their own voice”…and are creating from a place that’s “uniquely their own.” And yes, I have many self-portraits from over the years at http://mbellart.com/selfportraits.htm. Here’s one (below) from 2002. It coincidentally also contains “metaphorical objects” as well in the form of the first drawing box my Grandmother ever gave me to represent her, and small boxing gloves to represent my Grandfather, who was a boxer. And, come to look at it now, it’s actually very prophetic.


Michael Bell, “Conquests”, 36” X 48” oils on canvas

Michael Bell, “Conquests”, 36” X 48” oils on canvas

View Comments (4)
  • what a great intriguing interview! from the artist’s intimate/personal perspective of his own art, to the comprehensive discussion of the fabulous works of sargent [one of my favorite great artists/as is the painting portraits d’enfants] to the work of leibowitz’s lennon image – and cezanne – and what a challenge he gives us with creating our own family portrait! his todd project will impact many many for many years to come – congratulations on that! and many thanks for such an interesting and provocative interview today! fabulous!

  • Michael’s ability to paint and express his thoughts and emotions through his artwork is extraordinary and spectacular. To have Michael thinking about my daughter so shortly after her death and sharing his feelings with his family, friends and students conveys to me the strength of his character and determination as a person and fellow educator who wants to promote change and make a difference in the world with what he does best. For that I commend him and if I ever get the opportunity, I would give him a big HUG to say HELLO and to THANK HIM for remembering.

    ~ Carol Todd (Amanda’s mom)

  • Pingback: Everything about Portraits. Listen to Michael Bell | Yareah magazine()

  • (Here Martin) Great interview, Michael. We have to think about the project you have mentioned. It would be funny.


is renowned American painter and muralist, famous for his larger-than-life sized narrative series paintings and for his infamous portrait clientele, which includes the late Mob Boss John Gotti, best friend Dominic Capone III (Al Capone’s great nephew) and numerous actors from The Sopranos, Goodfellas, A Bronx Tale and more. Yes, his works are the mirror of a tragic world, but they deepen our human psychology with strong brush strokes and vivid colors, from personal memories and silent echoes, with courage and creativity. Bell was naturally gifted in art and won 1st Place in his first juried art exhibition at age 5. As an emerging artist he spent a lot of his time in and around New York City, studying art with his maternal grandmother, Violet Vallery, a self-taught artist from Lyndhurst, New Jersey. Then, after the still-born death of his sister Amanda and the sudden passing of his Grandfather, a former professional boxer, Bell began to explore life's personal and psychological issues through his paintings. In addition, Bell has written his first screenplay based on the real-life events surrounding his famous "TICKET TO RIDE™" painting series and has won three national awards in 2013. Bell exhibits his large, narrative series paintings in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles.

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