Behind The Scenes: Roberta Bell’s Life in Painting, Design, Gallery, Community Work

Behind the Scenes
The Spirit of Roberta Bell’s Life in Painting, Design, Gallery and Community Work.

by Jules. C. McCue. Sept., 2016 – Phone 0406664181– julesmccue.com

Artists dream of making works that force viewers to question their convictions and self-perceptions, but very few succeed in this aim. It’s especially difficult to find an image that bypasses the barriers of indifference and rationality and strikes the target.[1]

 

dance 3 picture and                             NEGATIVE                              rob sits

Three stages of Roberta Bell’s life.

Born in Sydney in 1924 to Robert Bell and Carrie Bell nee Hewitt, who were immigrants from the British Isles, Roberta lived and attended school in the inner city of Sydney. After high school Roberta attended East Sydney Technical College for several years, completing a Graduate Diploma in Design [Honours] in 1946. Her art teacher was Enid Cambridge, no doubt, facilitating the young artist/designer in following the creative path; not an easy one, especially for women. Whilst at high school, she was fortunate enough to attend still life classes at East Sydney Technical College, under the tutelage of Douglas Dundas and Dorothy Thornhill from 1939 till 1940. Roberta’s early design work was influenced by Loudon Sainthill, his Ballet Russes poster below, but more so, by the enchanting costumes and sets, designed by Diaghilev, Braque, Matisse and Picasso, upon which the young dancer feasted her eyes, when she was taken by her parents to every performance of the Ballet Russes in Sydney. Roberta will ‘bypass the barriers of indifference and rationality’, in her life of art.

Granos-de-cafe-300x170        GatitoPussycat-300x240               BalletRuses-232x300

Roberta’s mural designs and Loudon Sainthill’s Ballet Russes poster

At the end of school, Roberta enrolled as a full-time student at the same technical college and continued to be mentored by a host of highly talented tutors: G.K. Townsend, Herbert Badham, Edward Harvey, Phillis Shillito, Eric Roberts, Gunter and Herbert Gallop. Now 1946, Roberta is offered a part-time teaching position at the Design school, due to an increase in student numbers, owing to the returned servicemen training programme. The adage ‘Those who can, do: those who can’t, teach’, has been well-refuted. Thankfully, some of the best in their fields go on to pass on the baton and inspire students. Where would the arts and other schools be, if the experts did not contribute and pass on their skills and knowledge or at least give some guidance? Having a modest teaching salary also means that an artist does not have to compromise their work for food and shelter. I remember Elizabeth Cummings, a significant Australian artist, when teaching at East Sydney Technical College, inviting some of us to her new studio home in the bush, and the impact this had on us as young women artists. It was more than teaching, it was the life of the artist, their determination and sincerity of their work. The possibilities and inspiration were endless and exciting. Roberta, was also a mentor to many, young artists. Her example of hard work, enormous capacity for creativity, her style and presentation in the galleries, multi-tasking and generosity of spirit, were and are exemplary.

During this time, Roberta also completed a variety of design commissions: domestic plastic ware, metal jewellery, scarves, lino-cut prints, invitation designs for professional and commercial organisations, showrooms, logos, screens, murals and other interior and exterior designs. Like many other women, Roberta volunteered in the war effort assisting in rehabilitation craft programmes; also, working with young children and enlisting in the Australian Women’s National Service as a volunteer.

interior classics invite 1                                       bell

Invitation design for The Bell Gallery Berrima                                    The Bell Gallery logo

In 1953 Roberta resigned from her teaching post at East Sydney. Since 1950 she had been married, but sadly her husband John Osborne, died after one year in 1951, because of a congenital aneurysm, after 5 years in the air force during WW2. Roberta continued her design work, one commission being that of the showroom for Cornelius Furs in the city of Sydney, becoming a life-long friend of Stella Cornelius, [born 1919], who had come to Australia with her Jewish family escaping the Russian pogroms. Stella, although a business woman, also carried out intensive work in human rights and conflict resolution. Subsequently, Stella received many rewards and accolades for her work in the Peace Movement, none least of all, receiving personal recognition from Nelson Mandela in 2000.

Roberta also received several accolades and awards for her dedication to community and generally, her efforts to ameliorate, culturally and socially, every place in which she lived. In 1960, Roberta married Jack Howland, descended from an old, Wellington family in the Central West of NSW, a point at which she found herself on an adventure that was to dramatically change her artistic and social life. The inner-city girl is whisked off to what was originally called The Second Vale of Tempe, a lush river-rich, farming land. Wellington was hit by a bombshell of creative energy and good-will, ensuring that the artistic and social life of the sleepy town would change considerably. She with others, worked tirelessly to build an arts culture. A local history museum and gallery was set up, not long after her departure from Wellington, where she had worked on substantial art prizes, exhibitions and cultural events, designing, decorating and giving talks on Art Appreciation to various audiences. In fact, the very young Tim Storrier, who lived in the Central West, came to her asking for advice about pursuing an art career. No doubt, her sagacious words hit the mark and off he went. His choice had been to go to art school or remain a grazier on the large family property as his father had wished.

In 1961, Roberta was appointed the director of the first Wellington Art Prize. The judge being Roland Wakelin and the winner Margo Lewers. At that time, there were many talented artists living out in the central west, as are today, in the old gold-mining town of Hill End and the Bathurst and Orange Districts.

This vastly new, physical environment, the dynamic variations of the Australian landscape in all its uniqueness, charged up a new creative practice for Roberta.The antipodean phenomenon dug its way into the shade of her mind’s eye. Below is a compelling example of one of the pictures produced during this time of serious painting practice. Let us delve into what Roberta produced from now on and see if she hits the target as quoted above by John McDonald.

riverbedLeft, Riverbed: The Darling, mixed media, 1960, is “a little beauty”. For this time in the history of Australian landscape painting, the level of abstraction and almost transcendental reflection, found here, in comparison to what was happening at the time, is bold and daring. It is also unique in its timelessness, uncharacteristic of some art of the time that is dated, fitting into fashionable patterns and styles of the 1960s.

After seeing this painting for the first time and looking at the date, it becomes apparent that in terms of originality, it must have been striking at the time. Looking at other landscape pictures around 1960 and before, there are few to be considered in this light; that is, rendering of the intimate, the mind’s eye, the essence of place or as John Conway said of Roberta Bell’s landscapes, after seeing Through a Glass Darkly, a vision of Wollongong Harbour, a decade later:

an artist able to bring some secret inner landscape to enhance whatever her eye lights on. . . .To what extent can some of the ordinary bits of vision which continually move across the backs of our eyeballs suddenly take imaginative hold and become fixed as the basis for a painting?
The idea that a painting required certain picturesque ingredients like ruins, dense bushes in the lower corners, and a road running into the mountains where a white tree stands against a stormy sky, began to lose ground in the middle of the 19th century. [2]

ThroughAGlassDarkly-300x221

Through a Glass Darkly, 1970, oil on board

These words, a straightforward explanation for the local audience, would also be acceptable in 1960, if Riverbed: The Darling, were critiqued for a regional newspaper in the Central West, much of the audience never having seen such an abstract expression of a river at this time. The artist has used minimal brushstroke, colour, shape, layering and pattern to depict her sense of place at the time. She said that her design work was influenced by Japanese art – perhaps elements of which have crept into her new, painterly renderings.

A year later, in 1961, John Olsen paints Journey into You Beaut Country No.1., similarly intimate or close-up, but much more calligraphic in the use of strong linear elements signatory of his work. Olsen, on the other hand alludes to a narrative of lurking creatures with loosely depicted beaks, paws, claws and eyes: frenetic and wild. There are however, in both paintings, areas of dappled grounds; Bell’s being strikingly dynamic in black and white like the magpie, the burnt tree next to the white ghost gum, clay and charcoal – the black and white element salient in the Australian landscape. However, most painting of this time was still quite structured and figurative. Bell’s picture is gentle, loose, reflective and emotive.
The broad expanse and depth of inky darkness of the central plains at night stirred deep emotions. [Roberta Bell]
At this stage, she has surfaced from the grief of losing her first husband but there is another reason that could add to the notion of her originality; that of her life-long quest in the search of a spiritual truth or unearthing. When Roberta Bell’s mother arrived in Sydney from England, she felt a sense of isolation not untypical for anyone who moves far from home to an alien environment. It was suggested to her by a Doctor, who obviously perceived her intellectual and spiritual predilections, to consider Christian Science, which she did, finding a way to settle in to her new life down-under. Consequently, Roberta attended the associated equivalent of Sunday School.

Roberta explained that one of the ideologies of Christian Science is to heal oneself naturally, using self-awareness, common sense and will, rather than taking pills, notwithstanding the need for surgery, should the case arise. Also, the Christian Scientists were open to the ongoing search for spiritual and philosophical truth and knowledge, which promotes a prevention rather than cure principle. Her mother immersed herself in this philosophy, both as cognitive study and mystical exploration thereby, even allowing herself to consider some elements of the occult and magic to enhance her quest for truth and enlightenment. This attitude, opened up for Roberta, an endless world of possibilities, enabling her as an artist, designer and business person to live a life with no limits to creative imagination, problem solving and new ideas. She also took this attitude into the huge contribution made in the community arena. Wherever Roberta went, she became the ‘Babette of the Feast’ or the ‘Chocolatier’ of a religiously rigid village, bringing the gifts of joy, love, creativity and innovation.

Her life of art, business and community had no room for Chauvinism, which continues to fester in the arts’ worlds today, an attitude not limited to either sex. Now she was in what Germaine Greer termed The Obstacle Race [3]; the life of art for most women artists.
From now on Roberta continues to play with her fascination in the landscape and employs her broad knowledge and skill from her rigorous technical training, in her arts practice, to explore sentient colour and tonal rendering, highly-textured surfaces and dynamic spatial composition. She never allowed herself to get “stuck” in a pleasing style or become a serial producer of limp but popular pictures for the sake of selling.

In 1963, she and her husband Jack Howland made a sea change, relocating to Wollongong in the beautiful Illawarra of the South Coast, N.S.W. The contrast of surroundings could hardly be greater from rolling hills, farms and bush to large expanses of deep, blue sea, long horizons and the background of a sharp, rocky escarpment carpeted in rainforest, and veils of mist. Fighting with the natural beauty herein, unmissable is the menacing, smoke- belching giant: the Port Kembla steel works. An icon much exploited by artists as a creative source and incongruously a much-loved part of the “Gong”.

A number of beautiful pictures unravel during this time, while continuing to create design work and becoming involved in the setting-up of a regional gallery.

RockPool-247x300Rock Pool, 1965, shellac and mixed media on watercolour board [left]

Sea Dream l, 1965 below, exhibited at the Bonython Gallery, and Rock Pool, 1965 [above] continue to evoke a spirit of place, almost with no figuration, but rather an essence of the sensation of phosphorescent mist, foaming movement and primeval life of the sea and rock. Soft compositional elements and a reduction of all pictorial elements as in Riverbed, 1960, are central to her practice. Amongst the work of known, contemporary artists there is little to compare with this work. Jon Molvig was experimenting with the dried-out carcasses of the desert, some of which he called Centralian Still Life, painted in the 1950s and 60s. These moved to and fro, between complete abstraction and the semi-figurative. Others of his, such as Nocturne Landscape, dating from 1958, were also attempts in experimenting with creative solutions or paths to express the exciting or menacing elements of this arcane, antipodean landscape.

Seadream-234x300Sea Dream I, 1965.  shellac and mixed media on watercolour board [left]

Needless to say, all the talk at the time was of Boyd, Nolan, Pugh and a little later Williams and Olsen, to name a few, and almost completely a list of male artists while Roberta Bell and other women were quietly working away exploring the new territory, unjustly ignored. Not to say, that many of the ‘blokes’ were not masters of their art. Olsen is a genius. In fact, he, Fred Williams and Elisabeth Cummings are three that come to mind, who have put the landscape onto a new plane in Visual Art. But one can only wonder what we miss in terms of talent and originality. Of course, no one is completely original, but how often do influences and inspiration go unmentioned or unnoticed?

This is not a history of women in art, but for many women, there are plenty of other duties which they are impelled to carry out – torn away from their arts practice, often losing momentum, or merely ignored and neglected. Roberta was certainly at the forefront of this new plane early in the piece, but life does not always give women a clear, unfettered path, made easy by spouses and other benefits. Perhaps, these other important duties and rich experiences lend to their work, a certain depth and breadth? Much can be said about the richness of experience for the writer, poet, composer and film maker. The visual arts ought not be an exception. The fact that Margaret Preston and Grace Cossington-Smith were forced to ‘stay home’ for several of family and other reasons at times, undoubtedly determined the content and inextricable stylistic choices and explorations, that made what became unique and ground-breaking contributions to the art world in Modernist Australia, through still life. In the light of background knowledge and experience, the content and meaning of art changes. Henry Matisse’s father had a fabric business and George Braque’s father and he for a while, were painters and decorators.

FitzroyFalls-300x210Sunset at Fitzroy Falls, 1967

Time in the Illawarra led to many more original paintings inspired by this stimulating environment: Sunset Fitzroy Falls, Coalcliff by the Sea, Cracker Night, Through a Glass Darkly, Steel Heat, Captured Sea Myth, Cascade, The Tunnel and the panel series: Waterfall, Ferns and Vines, to name a few. Sunset at Fitzroy Falls, 1967 [above], once again captures a mystical, magical display of wondrous nature. Probably Bell’s work is closer to that of Cossington-Smith in its raison d’etre. Behind and within, it is the psyche – highly-developed, finely-tuned and an alert, awareness of colliding worlds, the here and now materiality of the temporal and others beyond.

SteelHeat-240x300Steel Heat, 1970. water colour

Steel Heat, 1970, [above], introduces a new style, dictated by the medium of water-colour, wherein, the artist structures the composition with soft, flowing line which in this case evokes molten metal, smoke and the intense heat of this mighty – manufacturing – monster. Years later, after another re-location to Berrima, Roberta Bell takes this technique of layering soft veils of coloured washes combined with meandering line across into the landscape, producing Mangroves, 1974, [below], “a little masterpiece”: minimal, evocative, intimate, gentle.

Mangrove. jpgMangroves, c.1974. water colour.

Once again in 1978, Roberta is faced with the ultimate shock, the rapid demise and subsequent death of her second husband, Jack Howland. By this time, they had built The Barn Gallery at Berrima, and were in the process of buying antiques, art and other merchandise. Roberta was left with the daunting task of keeping it afloat, and more especially her own mind, body and spirit; these being notable, as Roberta had always practised self-development, a by-product of earlier years. This gave her strategies she employed in order to survive.

 

Scan_20160805 (31)snow robertaDSC00912

Somehow, Roberta was able to pull herself together and keep on going. From now on Roberta Bell-Howland would work to run the business, paint at night after close of shop, work tirelessly for the Berrima community, building the tourist destination brand of “Historic Berrima”, producing logo designs, Christmas and Tulip Festival paraphernalia, establishing with others a municipal gallery, and caring for hers and Jack’s elderly parents. Her energy was boundless, but naturally, there was a low time.

Nothing stopping her, in 1989-90 Roberta goes on to build The Bell Gallery, also at Berrima, whilst continuing to make art. At this time, Roberta Bell-Howland, continued to investigate the pictorial possibilities of her pre-occupation with religious themes and other mythical and mystical subject matter, creating much pictorial magic. The results of her explorations were entered in the Blake Prize succeeding as a Finalist in several of the exhibitions, often receiving Highly Commended. In 1962, Parable of the Sower, in 1972 Serpent in the Garden, 1973, Miraculous Bird of Medication,1975, God’s Promise to Noah, as well as numerous entries from The Horizon and Phoenix series, all succeeding as Finalists in the Sulman and Wynne Prizes.

During the eighties and nineties her work changes dynamically; colours becoming more intense, compositions more formalist with both form and colour vividly expressive. With regard to landscape, she produced over many years, The Horizon Series, a nomenclature poignant to Australian Art. Horizon 1 appears in 1971, shellac and mixed media continue to be her signatory vehicle of expression. This is evident in comparing Ebb and Flow, 1998, gouache on watercolour board with Through a Glass Darkly, of 1970, oil on board. [above] All pictorial elements are transformed, but the idea of capturing the essential fleeting image remains in these pictures from the Horizon Series.
Religious themes and another new series, The Phoenix, also appear initially in the seventies. The content of all four themes will continue to be thoroughly investigated well into the 21st century. The Phoenix theme transpired as a result of a comment made by her colleague, Phillis Shillito, Head of Design at East Sydney Technical College, when Roberta recovered from the death of her first husband in 1951, saying it was “phoenix-like”.

In the making of a visual image, there is a striving to encapsulate where the mind and feeling is in relation to the subject matter – it is a complex and time consuming task to bring together its complexities and to strive at a satisfactory resolution. . . Roberta’s work particularly demonstrates a most important principle in the creative process: that of discovery.[4]

The words of Margaret Woodward, written for Roberta’s retrospective in 1995, at the Southern Highlands Regional Gallery, another woman artist close to Roberta, who knew and cherished many woman artists, such as May Barry and Doreen Gadsby. Roberta also facilitated many younger women artists as well as her peers. This is rare in a competitive arts world. Artists are marketed like ordinary commodities and some competitors in art prizes make art that compliments the judge’s own work. Worse still, it is called the ‘art industry’. For many artists, their work is not an industry, which connotes ‘factory’ or ‘mass-production’, rather, it is essential to their existence. There is no ‘must do’ for material existence or fame, there is only ‘need to’ for psychic survival. Integrity and honesty are evident in the work that is significant.

Not being agnostic or atheist, Roberta Bell definitely has her ‘other world’ that pervades her physical and intellectual space.
It is a delight! It is somewhat akin to the ancient Irish in the landscape. Every tree and rock explains what is: angels and fairies all about. Roberta Bell-Allen, now married for a third time to Robert Allen, after thirty years of being single, has a blend of British Isles ancestry. One may believe that the Larkin branch manifests in Roberta the survivor, the fighter, the creative artist, the digger who seeks to know, the joyful craftsperson, the loving care of friends and family, the generosity and hospitality: adventurer and survivor.

Picture1Ebb and Flow, 1998. Gouache and water colour on board

Through her art over decades, she joins the temporal world and the spirit world – the O’ Larrikin, pre-Christian world is inherited epigenetically and feeds into the work, in the same way it did in the La Tene period, [5th Century BC – 1st Century AD] of Celtic crafting. Ebb and Flow, 1998 above, and all work from the Horizon Series contains the archetypal, circular form, which is juxtaposed with the horizon, forming a compositional tension. Carl Jung suggested that the circle in art and craft is symbolic of ‘soul’ or ‘psyche’. Something happens when artists go out into the Australian landscape, that awakens new vision. This is the bold, larrikin element, essentially Australian in nature. The landscape speaks to us, transforming into imaginative attributes, making a unique Australian art, especially evident in the iconic desert and outback works of Elizabeth Cummings and others, up till this time in the 21st Century.When Deborah Hart discusses the larrikin element and what was to become an iconic vision in John Olsen’s new landscapes of the early sixties she included this statement:

On these journeys of movements, flux and change the viewer is encouraged to be an active particpant, a fellow traveller into a world of the unexpected. ‘I’m inviting you to come with me on this journey of … strange and weird happenings …  ‘The You Beaut Country’ is a world of the irrational … we can never exactly premeditate where it is going to lead us … just like life.’ [5]

What can one explain about the mystery of art which contains much breadth and depth? After all, the essence of art that moves one is ineffable. Virginia Hooker, Emeritus Professor in Asian Studies, ANU, explains the relationship between art and “the mindfulness of Allah” in the work of Didin Sirojuddin AR, born Indonesia 1957, a master calligrapher:

The relationship between spiritual belief and artistic practice, he says, should be indivisible.
In his own works he hopes, like his senior friend, A.D. Pirous, to provide images which encourage spiritual reflection by viewers. [6]

CaptureSeaMyth-300x300 Captured Sea Myth, 1971. oil on board

coalcliff by the Sea and    Painting 5 (3) and

    Coalcliff by the Sea, 1964. oil on board                         Highway on a Hot Day, 1994. gouache and pastel on board                          ,

Influences from a strong design background, the Cubists and other Modernist movements, are evident in Roberta’s work, combined with very hard labour, adding layers then digging back down to reveal new, exciting textures and colours. More powerful is the exclusion of human form, rather, the artist conjures up the mystery of a presence in the cosmos, within the landscape or myth, portrayed. Sydney Long is recognised for his lyrical and iconic attempts in this quest, including figurative, mythical beings as in a dream: a very pleasant dream. Roberta sometimes refers to ‘dream’ in titles, but does not venture into sex or death, preferring joy and transformation, even celebration: no Prince of Darkness, no hallucinations.

Finale 2Finale 2012, gouache on watercolour board

Finale, 2012, [above], is imbued with intellectual substance but does not lose its visual, sentient power in conceptual thesis. Imagination and psyche embed and surface in the delivery, remaining outside the realms of contemporary serial production, or some conceptual art that requires viewers to read a tome in order to ‘get it’.

Bryan Robertson, after visiting the Venice Biennale in 1995 rediscovers Bellini of Renaissance Venice, comments in an exposée about the quality of much contemporary art:

The contrast between Bellini’s glowing world and the rackety side shows of the Biennale made the supremacy of painting as a revelation of the human condition and our expanding perception of human and physical nature seem even weightier and more consequential than ever before.[6]

Roberta’s most recent paintings include mythical figures as emblematic of her life triumphs and tribulations, such as the Splendid Return of the Phoenix, 2002 [below]. The powerful design reverts to the early murals rendered on panels. After striving on, through all that has been thrown at Roberta Bell-Allen, she emerges in her nineties with a sharp mind and continues with determination and defiance. The Endangered, 2012, shows her continuing ability to experiment with new themes, whilst blending old and new techniques.

rise again              Rob and May

Splendid Return of the Phoenix, 2002, enamel on board              May Barry [sculptor] and Roberta Bell, [1964]

There are many forms and functions of art. Here to contemplate, is Christopher Allen’s comment, which may be considered old-fashioned about an art form that was once primarily visual and sensual. Is not the basis of good art, the exceptional skill in seeing, feeling and drawing; all three fundamental elements evident in the art of Roberta Bell?

Art is a kind of thinking, but a more primitive and intuitive form than conceptual thinking, which is a late development of advanced civilizations. Art is an organon for thinking concretely about the world, by reshaping it and presenting it to be experienced by the senses and the imagination in the same way we experience the real world. [7]

sized salamandaThe Endangered, 2012, mixed media.

END NOTES

[1] John MacDonald, If Pain Persists, with reference to Linde Ivimey’s sculpture exhibition at University of QLD Art Museum, Brisbane. [SMH, Spectrum, Feb. 16-17, 2013].
[2] John Conroy, Painter’s Inner Landscapes, “Art with John Conway”. Illawarra Mercury, Wollongong, 1970.
[3] Germaine Greer, The Obstacle Race. [Secker & Warburg Ltd, 1979]. London.
[4] Margaret Woodward, A Critique for the Roberta Bell Retrospective Exhibition at the Southern Highlands Regional Gallery in 1994.

[5] Deborah Hart, John Olsen, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1991, p. 58. [{22}, Olsen, interview with Hazel de Berg, 1964.]
[6] Virginia Hooker, Didin Sirojuddin AR, an essay in Making Connections: Southeast Asian Art @ANU, ed., David Williams and Caroline Turner [Union Offset Printers, Canberra]
[7] Bryan Robertson, The Modernity of Bellini in Modern Painters, Autumn, 1995, Vol.8., No. 3. [Fine Art Journals, Ltd, England.]
[8] Christopher Allen, Special Arrangement, [Weekend Australian. June 30 – July 1, 2012].

To see more about Roberta’s life and art visit: robertabellallen.com.au

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