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Michael Bell, American artist to the stars, painter, muralist… we are proud of presenting this friendly interview. Thanks, Michael!
If you prefer, you can download a pdf with the interview here.
Q.- After reading your bio, I’ve concluded you were a happy boy with an artistic background. Your grandma was an artist from Lyndhurst, who helped you at your beginnings and your mum also supported your artistic gift. The result is that you were awarded at age 5. How did your family influence your decision to be an artist? And how about the ‘special’ city where you were born: New York?
First, congratulations on developing an amazing magazine that explores both Art and Literature. Both those worlds are deeply rooted in who I have evolved into as an artist.
I did win my first art show at the age of 5. My Grandmother is the one who put the first paintbrush in my hand. She was a self-taught artist from Lyndhurst, NJ who taught herself how to paint with oils despite having no formal education. That’s always amazed me. My parents were also extremely supportive of my art, entering me in shows ever since I can remember. They’re the kind of parents that would be involved in whatever it was you were into. For me, I happened to have a natural gift for art.
As far as happy goes…we were. And then tragedy struck. My mother lost my sister, Amanda, shortly after birth and it threw our whole family into a tailspin of dark days, but I know they did everything they could for me despite the years of depression it caused for my mother, and the toll the tragedy took on our family.
I believe the most important job for an Artist is “to draw a line from your life to your art that is straight and clear.” For me, early on, painting early on became a positive way for me to give form and meaning to those very difficult life experiences…as a way to do something “constructive” as opposed to “destructive” with what life threw my way.
You’re right about New York City; it’s always been the most magical city in the world to me and even as a kid has served as a consummate source of inspiration for me with my art for years. I sold my first painting in the City during my early twenties when I lived in Manhattan for a time. Love NYC!
Q.- As a successful artist, you have been supporting different charities acts and organizations. Education programs has been one of your objectives. How do you think Art can help to make better people and eliminate antagonism and violence?
I firmly believe that Artists are at the heart of humanity and I think the Arts do a great job teaching empathy — it’s a natural connection. Empathy makes us human and is an essential part of living a life filled with meaning, and because pictures precede language, I believe that Arts have the ability to often say what words fail to accurately describe.
When 9.11 hit, it changed the world forever, not to mention the impact it had on the Art Market, and in the United States nobody – especially not artists – were prepared to deal with such a tragedy. I remember getting a call from one of my “Sopranos” actor clientele – Joseph R. Gannscoli (Joey G, as I call him). We were scheduled to do a print signing together at the 3rd Ave Festival in Brooklyn, NY that September. He was devastated. He told me he lost half his neighborhood. Robert Cordice, a fallen FDNY’s Squad 1 Firefighter came up in the conversation, as did Father Mychal – 9.11’s first official casualty, which was coincidentally my wife’s childhood Priest. I ended up pulling an all-nighter and painted a portrait of Rob and sent it to Joe along with some other Sopranos prints for their fundraiser for Squad 1. I later did a second fundraiser at Rascal’s Comedy Club in West Orange, NJ where actors Kevin James from “King of Queens” and “Sopranos” Steve Schirripa auctioned off a pastel piece I did of him and Joey G to help raise thousands for some of the families of fallen heroes. We were doing it on our own because word was spreading that all the money going to places like the Red Cross wasn’t actually finding its way to the actual families. This was my first taste of “supporting different charities.”
After that, I became involved in Domestic Violence Activism. I was able to give some very high profile women who experienced some unspeakable domestic horrors in their lives a new voice of hope through some very empowering portraits. From ex-mafia wife Georgia Durante, to Denise Brown (sister of Nicole Brown, the slain ex-wife of O.J. Simpson) to several Adult Film Stars with some incredibly tragic tales. In 2005 I was awarded Los Angeles’ Good Shepherd Community Service Award for my activism efforts through art. While in L.A. I toured the Good Shepherd Shelter and met a remarkable little boy as I sat in on a creative arts class. I was told he wouldn’t even enter a room with you if it didn’t have an exit behind him and an exit in front of him because he was locked in a closet while he watched his mother being set on fire by her ex-husband. Horrific stories like this inspired me to leave that shelter and create an annual sketchbook making project with kids from my National Art Honor Society to give these women and children a place to deposit all these emotions into a creative outlet, while letting them know that there are people out there who do care about them, even if we’re thousands of miles away across the country. I’m currently working on these sketchbooks this week and project to have about 50 handmade sketchbooks for these women and children just in time for Christmas.
My most recent experience with Art to help to make better people and eliminate antagonism and violence happened when I received a message through a friend on Facebook about Amanda Todd, a Vancouver teen, had killed herself October 10, 2012, one month shy of her 16th birthday after telling the world through a YouTube video of the years of bullying that ultimately led to her death. I watched Amanda’s heart-wrenching YouTube video that chronicled her bullying nightmare. I was deeply saddened by this, as a father of a son, and as a brother of a deceased sister, also bearing the name ‘Amanda’ and felt compelled to do “something.” Here’s a “Response Video” chronicling what I created in her honor: http://youtube.com/mbellart
I stretched a 4′ X 8′ canvas and began painting Amanda’s portrait that next morning, not really knowing why I was doing what I was doing, just knowing it was what I was supposed to do.
I shared Amanda’s video with kids in my National Art Honor Society at a local high school, and the painting I started. They too were deeply saddened and also felt that compelling feeling to “do something.” As an artist, you’re never quite prepared to handle the responsibility of giving form and meaningful expression to something so tragic, but this is how her portrait was born. I invited the kids I shared the portrait I started with to make it a collaboration piece and before I knew it there was five people painting it at once.
Word spread throughout the school so I came up with the idea of everyone filling the background with their own handprints, painted different shades of purple in honor of purple being our National Bullying Awareness Color. By noon I had a line out my Studio door of students coming in to put their hand print on the canvas to show support for Amanda and her family.
If nothing else, we created a school-wide conversation about Empathy that day, and I shipped the painting to her mother as a gift. Her Mom said, “I have lost one child, but know she wanted her story to save 1,000 more.”
I hope people will take note of what we did will take a moment to sit next to that kid in lunch that’s by themselves, step in and do something before things get too far with someone being bullied. No one should have to go through what Amanda Todd and so many others go through on a daily basis.
Q.- As you know, I’m from the old Europe, a land full of Classic painters. Has some of them influenced your work? How about Much or Renoir?
Absolutely. My biggest influences actually span most of Art History. Starting with Leonardo da Vinci, who inspired me to begin pioneering the “Visual Journaling” movement many years ago. I even have a website dedicated to the visual journaling process at http://visualjournaling.com I plan meticulously in my sketchbooks much like Da Vinci would, documenting everything I can about the subject matter I’m painting. I also am a fan of Caravaggio, Rembrandt and Vermeer for the way they work with the mystery of light. You can view several of my own sketchbooks online at http://mbellart.com/sketchbooks.html
I also appreciate Edvard Munch. His works inspired me because he dealt with a lot of pain and destructive relationships in his life and worked his inner sufferings into his paintings. I admire that and have also explored some similar subject matter in my work. If it’s personal to me, I’ll spend more time with it, re-create the experience in order to understand it with more clarity and allow the world a glimpse into what it’s like to be me. Munch also had some fascinating visual journals. His “Frieze of Life” series in particular inspired my own “Love Series” during my college years. You can see those works at http://mbellart.com/loveseries.htm
Lastly, as a contemporary mentor I’ll have to say Eric Fischl has had a huge impact on my love of creating thematic series paintings, especially works dealing with the figure and the art of “the psychological narrative.” His glassine works took visual journaling to a whole new dimension, painting on separate sheets of larger-than-life sized sheets of it to help determine final compositions – simply brilliant!
Eric and I have become friends over the years and I’ve also collaborated with him to create compelling projects for his nationwide “AMERICA: NOW AND HERE” movement. Eric is a fantastic painter, but even moreso – a fantastic person. It’s not often you get to meet your childhood heroes, let alone meet them only to find out they’re even cooler than you imagined they’d be. That’s how I’d describe Eric. Just an amazing individual who has done so much for the Art World and touched far more lives than I’m sure he would ever realize.
Q.- Your relationship with theater and cinema has been very close. In fact, you like ‘dangerous narratives’ and dynamic processes. Which topics have inspired you most?
My works are very cinematic, and you’re right, they’re filled with many dangerous narratives. As a kid, I grew up on Mob movies like the Godfather, the Pope of Greenwich Village, Goodfellas. I also had an “Uncle” on my mother’s side, her first cousin I believe, that served 20 years in Trenton State Prison for a contract killing, only to be found shot to death in his apartment when he was paroled, so I not only grew up with a love of cinema, I’m also familiar with “the life” and have built a lot of my dangerous narratives around personal experiences, like my “Ticket to Ride” series from 2010 and “Carnevale Italiano” Series, in progress for 2013.
I would later do some portraits of the late John Gotti for his family, which brought attention to my work (some positive, some negative), but attention nevertheless…which led to more commissioned portraits for a lot of interesting people. Then came portraits for actors on “the Sopranos” — stars like Joseph R. Gannascoli (Vito) to John Fiore (Gigi), Joe Pantoliano (Ralphie), Tony Sirico (Paulie Walnuts), Sofia Milos (also of CSI:Miami), Clem Caserta of of “A Bronx Tale”, Dominic Capone (Al Capone’s Great Nephew) and most recently, a series of seven VERY DANGEROUS NARRATIVES for Mob Wives Toni Marie Ricci.
These works are strikingly cinematic and high in concept, reminiscent of timeless movie montages straight out of the Godfather. This project is unique because it visually explores a world most people only get snapshots of in the newspaper or on television.
Each work is based on true events surrounding the life of Ricci, who spent 17 years married to Gambino Capo Michael “Mikey Scars” DiLeonardo, a notorious mob rat who turned on reputed mob boss John Gotti, Jr. and testified against him. Ricci divorced DiLeonardo after learning he’d fathered an illegitimate child with one of his mistresses and, in a twist of fate she joined forces with Gotti and took the stand in his the reputed mob boss’ defense, testifying against her former husband.
I believe an artist can only truly paint something with an authentic voice if it’s something they are familiar with – something they truly know. It’s the difference between reading hundreds of love stories and actually falling in love. After all, if you were to pick up a novel about a serial killer, you would want to read it as told through the eyes of an actual serial killer, not just someone who has studied them, no? Through my art I simply draw back the curtains on this woman’s world and on “the life” with an authenticity matched by no other artist of my time.
Q.- Can we talk about color? I’m fascinated with your colors, a different palette where white and personal grays are the kings? Are you trying to create a new world by creating new palettes?
Of course. I’m equally as fascinated that you picked up on my unique color palette. Thank you for that. I actually LOVE color. I fall in love every time I stand in front of a Rembrandt or Vermeer. But for me, that palette would unnaturally brighten the world of my subjects’ lives in a way that would destroy the meaning in my work. I am trying to create a new world through my palette, and it’s also something my painting clientele have picked up on. Once, a client (Georgia Durante) wrote, “He sees me in black and white. Is that all I am? So many grays, like the gray areas of my life he’s somehow picked up on. It makes me want to scream in color.”
Q.- You have portrayed very many personalities: actors, singers, soprano singers… If I were an artist I’d like to portrait Scarlett Johansson (evident reasons) but artists aren’t usually looking for handsome faces. Can you tell us about someone you would like to portrait and why?
Mickey Rourke. I drew him once, a long time ago. It’s in my Black and White Gallery section here: http://mbellart.com/blackandwhite.htm Mickey was like a childhood hero to me because I could relate to his personality and on screen presence. He’s interesting. He’s been through the kinds of peaks and valleys most people cannot even begin to imagine and he’s weathered many storms. He’d make for a really amazing portrait sitting, I think.
Q.- You have been a pioneer of the visual journaling movement since the 1990’s. Can you tell a little more about this idea?
Visual journaling is a creative way to express and record life’s experiences, feelings, emotional reactions, or our inner world – visually and verbally. I believe visual journaling is the potential key to the art-making process and I have a book that’s been many years in the works on this subject that will be eye-opening to anyone wanting to access their “inner world” and give it form and meaningful expression.
Exploring our own thought process through visual journaling is essential in a world that is in a state of continuous change and just as there are many ways to express oneself artistically, there are many ways to dive deep into the process of visual journaling.
For me, the creative process is highly personal and I believe this process is unique to each individual artist. It’s the invocation of practice and theory. It’s about visual and verbal language coming together as one. My early works all began as poems. Later, I began exploring painting as narratives in a thematic series. This led to writing my first screenplay based on my “Ticket to Ride” painting series, and now I’m working on a series of seven narrative paintings that explore the life of Mob Wife Toni Marie Ricci. So, for me, this connection between visual and verbal language has always been there. Visual journaling was a way for me to give a formal title and a formal process to something that happened for me so naturally.
I’d like to find the right Producers for my “Ticket to Ride” movie. It’s a period piece about an artist with an interesting dichotomy in that he seems driven to both create and destroy. It will shed a lot of light on my art-making process while telling some true-life stories that really must be heard. Aside from that, I also have a few acting gigs lined up on the side, to explore what many of my clientele describe to me as “the ultimate high” doing the ultimate role. After all, as artists, we’re always evolving and trying new things. In the midst of all this, once I finish Toni Marie Ricci’s series of seven narrative portraits that will go in her book “Scars of a Real Mob Wife.” I recently unveiled the first painting in the series on national television in New York City for VH1’s “Mob Wives Season 3.” I’ll be seeking the right gallery to exhibit these works in conjunction with her book release
Q.- After hearing about so extensive work, I’d like to know where have you find time for doing so many things?
I don’t sleep much. Kidding – well, not really…
I guess you could say I lead a lot of separate lives. I’m an artist, husband, father, brother, leader, teacher, mentor, author, playwright, actor, activist, champion for change…you name it, I do it. I guess I wouldn’t be happy if I wasn’t traveling Mach 10 with my hair on fire. I like to try and squeeze every last drop out of life, so every moment counts and I multi-task more than anyone would ever believe. I’ve always believed in making the most out of any opportunities that come your way. For that reason, I’m always “guilty of going”…wherever that call may lead me…
Q.- Next projects?
I’d like to find the right Producers for my “Ticket to Ride” movie. It’s a period piece about an artist with an interesting dichotomy in that he seems driven to both create and destroy. It will shed a lot of light on my art-making process while telling some true-life stories that really must be heard. Aside from that, I also have a few acting gigs lined up on the side, to explore what many of my clientele describe to me as “the ultimate high” doing the ultimate role. After all, as artists, we’re always evolving and trying new things. In the midst of all this, once I finish Toni Marie Ricci’s series of seven narrative portraits that will go in her book “Scars of a Real Mob Wife.” I recently unveiled the first painting in the series on national television in New York City for VH1’s “Mob Wives Season 3.” I’ll be seeking the right gallery to exhibit these works in conjunction with her book release.
Thank you again for the exciting questions and much continued success to you and Yareah Magazine!