Emerson Bell doesn’t walk; he bops to the music within. When he arrives on the scene, complete with vest, scarf, and broach, his internal reality becomes the only reality. The crowd feels the music Bell feels inside, and somehow everyone in the room becomes just a little bit cooler. On the day I met Emerson, among those gaining hip-points by proximity were an LSU student hoping to interview Emerson for a journalism class, a young painter egger to show her work, and Louisiana mixed medium artist Gaylord James, who has recently rediscovered a thirty-five year old photograph he took of Bell sculpting in at the old state house. This is not a busy day for Emerson. Between old friends and new admirers seventy-four year old Bell is still in high demand.
“Emerson Bell is the last of the original hipsters,” said Louisiana State Museum curator, and childhood friend of Bell, Charles (Chuck) Siler. “I had heard about ‘Imp’ long before I ever met him. I thought they called him ‘Imp’ because he was mischievous, which he was, but I found out later it was short for Impresario.”
“Everyone had a nick name back in the day,” said Emerson. “The harder you tried to get away from it, the harder it stuck.” Despite Emerson the imp’s attempts to escape his nickname, he continued to impress artistic communities across the world. Whether sculpting in wood, metal, stone, or clay; printmaking from natural pigments; or creating dynamic impressionistic paintings Emerson received critical acclaim.
Internationally recognized and collected, Emerson has received awards from some of the nation’s most competitive granting organizations, including the ford foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). Through the grant from the NEA, Emerson became the first artist in residence in East Baton Rouge public schools. The students of EBR worked hands-on with Bell, designing and producing original works of art. “It was a real beautiful thing,” said Bell. “We turned a lot of kids on to things that are transcendent and aesthetic.”
Louisiana writer Ava Leavell Haymon worked with Bell during his residence in the Baton Rouge public school system. “I spent a year as coordinator of the Baton Rouge arts council. It wasn’t much of a writing year, but I thought it was important bring genuine artists together with the children.” In the classroom, “they would provide Emerson with a piece of wood, a chisel and hammer, and say: Make a head,” said Haymon. “Bell would just start chopping away.” Through this studio time with Bell, “the children could see the immediacy of art; I think it really changed them.”
Emerson also began his artistic education at an early age. “I came up in the thirties and early forties; there were a lot of great minds to feed off of,” Emerson recalled. “Every weekend my parents would have intellectuals over to discuss literature, dance, music, and art. It was a classical education: A kind of tutoring. Everyone was interested in elevating the children.”
Emerson’s family’s desire to elevate the next generation was not limited to the mind, but encompassed the spirit as well. With a strong spiritual background and a budding interest in the arts, Bell began working as a church decorator; he painted interiors, worked on altarpieces, made banners, and stained glass windows.
Throughout his career, spirituality has continued to permeate Bell’s art. Emerson’s meditations on “The Prophet” are a must have for his collectors. “I use to see this man, Thomas West, down by the river. He wore a white tunic and carried a cross over his shoulder,” Emerson said. “I had not seen anything like it on this planet Earth: that kind of devotedness. I became obsessed with the subject matter.”
Emerson has continued to work with likenesses of the prophet, adding subtle variations which reflect his ever evolving influences. For example, in The Prophet with Umbrella, the cross carried by the prophet is adorned by a small crescent moon: A gesture of admiration for the eastern religions and philosophies Bell was exposed to during the Korean War. “I spent a lot of time in Japan,” Bell recalls. “I saw artists doing wood cuts, and oriental ink drawing. Now when you see traces of the orient in my work, in a way I’m reminiscing; I think people can feel the symbolic want and that attracts them to the work.”
“With Emerson you get the whole package,” said Micheal Crespo, Louisiana artist and professor at LSU. “I’ll catch him reading at Perks, and end up having hours and hours of conversation. I’m always impressed with his knowledge of both eastern and western art and art history. In many ways Emerson is his art.”
In addition to his family, spirituality, and experiences in the orient, Bell attributes his success as an artist to the mentors and teachers he has worked with throughout his life. After receiving his first grant from the Ford Foundation, Bell began working with John Payne. “At that time, I was in upstate Michigan. The Ford Foundation gave me support while I developed,” said Bell. “I was able to freelance, and learn; I didn’t have to be commercial.” Emerson continued to develop as an artist studying with Charles Wilson at the Fine Arts Academy in Chicago, and under Alvin Batiste at Southern University.
While Bell benefited greatly from his travels, there was always a part of him which yearned for Louisiana. “It would be around this time of year, fall; I’d be in Michigan, Chicago, or New York and it would start to get cold, real cold. It was around that time that I’d start thinking about Louisiana real strong,” said Bell. “I knew that back in Baton Rouge everything was still green. It wasn’t hot like the summer; it was just beautiful.”
Bell eventually returned to Baton Rouge, and by 1974 he had major exhibits in New Orleans, Baton Rouge, Washington, D.C., and Alabama. “Baton Rouge wasn’t like it is today,” Bell recalls; his tone more somber. “Down town was much more of a city. There was always something going on. We had the money to bring in Russian dance troops, theater performers, and artists from all over.” Bell shook his head. “All of my students knew the dance troops and what was going on in the theater.” When it comes to funding for public schools, said Bell, “It doesn’t seem that anyone cares about teaching the children about anything aesthetic. The music and art programs keep getting cut.”
With the governments dwindling interest in fostering the arts, and with the displacement of many artistic mentors, by this year’s hurricane season, Bell is pessimistic about the future of Louisiana’s cultural community. Every artist, every generation passes on. If we do not invest in art education for our children, who will become the next generation of artists and art lovers?
As Bell speaks of the impact of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and the fate of Louisiana’s cultural community, another famous Emerson’s words come to mind. In the last stanza of his aptly named poem “The Bell,” Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote:
And soon thy music, sad death-bell,
Shall lift its notes once more,
And mix my requiem with the wind
That sweeps my native shore.
For further exploration:
Ann Connelly Fine Arts: www.annconnelly.com
Gilley’s Gallery: www.gilleysgallery.com