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CELEBRATED FORT SMITH PAINTER’S LEGACY HONORED WITH BICENTENNIAL EXHIBIT

By Kim Murdock / Special to the Times Record

Known for his paintings of various areas of Fort Smith and his streetscapes of Garrison Avenue at the turn of the century — which many have made into prints — John Bell Jr. is a legend in the Fort Smith area, said Louis Meluso, executive director of the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum.

As Fort Smith prepares for its bicentennial festivities, the pieces Bell, a “well known artist (and) local Fort Smithian,” painted of the Fort Smith area and its historical sites depict a city to be celebrated, said Melissa Conry, marketing director for the museum.

Bell’s paintings of landmark buildings were “not about the buildings, but the community,” Meluso noted, citing the memoriam by Bell’s nephew, Bill Kropp III, published in the April 2014 issue of The Journal of the Fort Smith Historical Society. Bell’s art gave each place meaning, Meluso said, and it “seemed appropriate” to display his work at the museum in conjunction with the upcoming celebration.

“Most appropriate” were the words Claude Legris, executive director of the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau used to describe the selection of Bell in conjunction with the city’s bicentennial events. Bell was “born and raised here,” and he had “Fort Smith in his heart and in his head,” Legris said. “I can’t think of another city that has (its) own Norman Rockwell.”

The opening reception for the Fort Smith Legend John Bell display is scheduled for 5 to 7 p.m. Jan. 4 at the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum, 1601 Rogers Ave. Admission is $5 for nonmembers and free for members, and drinks and snacks will be served during the event. The display will open Jan. 5 and remain available through April 22. General admission to the museum is free. The museum is open from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. Visit the museum’s website at fsram.org or call the museum at (479) 784-2787 for more information.

Also on display during the bicentennial celebration will be the BONFIRE: Barbara Cade exhibit, which is currently open through Feb. 11. A “unique painting” in watercolor by Michael Haynes of the founding of Fort Smith will be featured during the bicentennial as well. The piece, which was commissioned by the National Park Service, Meluso said, captures the moment William Bradford arrived at Belle Point in a keelboat. The scouts on the shore can be seen as well as the craftsmen and tradesmen who were to build Fort Smith, he said.

While the piece has been used on National Park Service literature, the original work has never been on exhibit in Fort Smith, Meluso said.

“The two exhibitions seem to complement one another,” he said. While one portrays the actual founding of the city, the other presents the city from a unique historical perspective from one artist.

“The people and activity surrounding a church or a streetscape always gave the place meaning and purpose, not the other way around,” Kropp penned in the memoriam for his uncle. Bell’s works were all “historically investigated,” and “the buildings and even the signage along the avenue are based on fact.” At the same time, “the feel, mood and the captured moment” are fashioned “from the eye and soul of the artist.”

About 40 of Bell’s original paintings have been loaned to the museum so far for the exhibit, Meluso said. They have come from “all over the city,” he said. The “fairly comprehensive collection” includes original drawings, pen and ink, palette knife and brush.

The “native son of Fort Smith,” born in 1937, passed away in November 2013, Meluso said, reading from Kropp’s memoriam. Bell lived with a birth defect — cerebral palsy — and he spent his “whole life in a wheelchair,” Meluso shared from the article.

Despite his disability, Bell never considered his art ”‘handicapped art’ or the art of the handicapped,” Meluso read from the article.

Bell was an activist for handicap access in area stores, Meluso read. He turned his focus to making a living through art after earning his undergraduate degree and teaching certification from the University of Arkansas in 1965 but wasn’t afforded the opportunity to teach at either UA or in the Fort Smith schools because of his disability, Meluso shared, citing Kropp’s article.

After President George H.W. Bush signed the Disabilities Act, public apathy lessened, Meluso shared from the article. Bell continued, however, to face obstacles.

Later, Bell was able to instruct students from below scaffolding as they created art on buildings in Fort Smith, according to Kropp’s article. Bell’s excellent teaching skills were noted as a result, Meluso said.

The exhibit provides a “unique opportunity to experience the art of one of the legends of the Fort Smith area,” Meluso said. Viewing the exhibit will allow museum-goers to see “so many parts of the town” over a variety of “time periods as seen through the brush of Mr. Bell.”

The paintings donated for the exhibit have nearly all been shared with a story and/or personal reminiscences, Meluso said. Bell seems to have been a “pretty amazing individual.”