For South African artist Deborah Bell, a turning point came with the end of apartheid. With the release of Nelson Mandela and the wave of change that followed, Bell found a new direction. “My work became spiritual,” she says, “which it hadn’t been. My work now is more of a recognition that we are all things, all of us. If I use African imagery, I’m also looking at China, I’m looking at ancient Egyptian art, I’m looking at Sumerian. It’s the notion of a common consciousness that is us as well, that we are the composite of that mind. We all can access that mind, and it’s not separate. The work from the apartheid era was more about separation.”
Versatile and ever-changing, today Bell is as known for her clay and bronze figures as for her paintings. Her collections reside in the Hara Museum in Tokyo, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Smithsonian Institute and the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC, among other places. She spoke with SC Magazine about her experience of the connection between art and spirituality.
SC: In an alchemical sense, you’ve referred to creating art as a transmutation, with yourself as the base metal. How does this process change you and what does it teach you?
DB: For me, art making is spiritual practice. First of all, it’s the time when I’m the most absolutely focused and completely present in the moment. In being completely present, I surprise myself. I bring out images or do things that are precognitive – almost like seeing into the future. I’ve often found that I’ll do a work and not know what the symbolism of the work is. Then I’ll be reading a book a year later or listening to a teaching and suddenly I’ll say, “Oh, that’s what that’s about.” It’s become my way of moving into a different time. It’s the time when I’m analogical with a greater sense of being, more than any other time apart from my spiritual practice. This is the alchemy – this is where magic happens.
When I start a work I’m not sure what I’m going to make. I might have a vague idea but the process is more like going on an adventure in a forest and seeing where one gets led.
SC: A quote from Max Beckmann says, “I am seeking for the bridge that leads from the visible to the invisible.” How does that apply to your art?
DB: I have this sense that there is this large reservoir of knowledge of which I am usually unaware, and for me, making art is a way of accessing it. It’s like going back to the implicate order to bring out what is beyond our conscious knowing. It’s an otherness, like going into another space and picking out the formless, and giving them form. The creative process for me is a matter of delving into other worlds, where I do know things (but I don’t know that I know them), and bringing them out into this reality, into this world.
When I start a work I’m not sure what I’m going to make. I might have a vague idea but the process is more like going on an adventure in a forest and seeing where one gets led. Or it’s like having a conversation. I have a conversation with a canvas, piece of paper, clay, or plaster – whatever. I’ll make a mark and that in turn will suggest where I go next. It’s opening oneself up to a dialogue.
SC: So it really is a two-way process.
DB: There are plenty of artists who conceive of an idea and then execute it. I don’t work that way. If I’m faced with a blank canvas or a blank sheet of paper, I’ll just do anything on it, initially, and that will suggest what I do next.
Recently I’ve been starting works by splashing on a piece of paper on the floor. I use a very dilute gold paint that sinks into the paper – it seeps through and forms an underlying energy, or ‘other world’ that will subliminally flicker behind the drawing, and often suggests what the drawing might become. I might have known that I wanted the drawing to be a figure on a horse, and this gold flicker could suggest what form the horse and figure take, or it might turn out to be a sort of chimerical figure with wings.
The final piece will still reveal the memory or record of these other worlds underneath. So the work becomes not just about a pristine ‘finished’ world, but also about the history of getting there.
SC: You’ve talked about your sculptures in particular in terms of “revealing themselves.”
DB: When I was carving, the sculptures revealed themselves much in the way that Michelangelo described; it was like I was removing the extraneous to find the essence – going inwards. However, when I was coiling and building up in clay, they revealed themselves in a different way. It was as if they made themselves from the inside out, from their center to their skin. SC: Upon experiencing your “Unearthed” series, one viewer said that your art seems to possess a soul of its own, that being in the room with these statues was like being in the presence of someone. How do you see that?
DB: Certainly when I was making those pieces I was amazed by them, because I didn’t know how to make them. I’d been working with clay and I decided I wanted to make these large figures, but wasn’t too sure about how to go about it. The way I was working with the clay meant I had to coil each figure, much like coiling a pot. I would start with the feet, but by the time I got to knee-height, the feet would have to be completely hardened in order to carry the weight of the clay. So the works evolved upwards, and as each part of the body was made, it dried and became fixed. There was no going back and altering what had been done, nor was there any sense of what was still coming. These personages slowly revealed themselves, and it was as if they built themselves, using me as the medium to make them. They did seem to take on a life of their own.
These personages slowly revealed themselves, and it was as if they built themselves, using me as the medium to make them. They did seem to take on a life of their own.
The next series I made, my “Sentinel” figures, was part of a project with a group of other artists where we were invited to work at a brick factory in preparation for an exhibition. I had gone there thinking that I would carry on working in clay in the same way as my previous coiled works. But when I got there and watched the production line of slabs of solid extrudedclay being pushed through a pug mill, I saw the potential for something quite different. These forms suggested tall, sentinel type figures. I remembered the teaching of ‘the Constants,’ those beings holding the world in focus. I felt a need to honor these beings, these guardians. I made nine ‘Sentinel’ figures, and these in turn, revealed themselves through the carving away of the hard clay.
Often when I am working, I won’t be happy with a face or an expression. I’m not sure what it is, but just know that it is not right. Then I’ll make a small change, and all of a sudden something will shift and fall into place and there will be a sense of “So that’s who you are. ” I find the same thing when I’m painting.
To describe these beings as having a soul – I don’t know. However, they do develop a presence of their own which is beyond what I am.
SC: At a certain point you discovered African art, tucked away in the back of a museum. There were more celebrated works up in the front but you came upon this indigenous art and realized its quality. How did that change you as an artist?
DB: There was something about that quality of form and presence that they had. They were animated, they were their own beings. It started influencing me and changing me. My work changed enormously. It took a couple of years, and it was only looking back that I realized that the turning point was when I made a connection with these simple headrests. They weren’t even figurative sculptures. They had a history and a presence and they had almost taken on their own life form. They were just so beautiful in their form. Over time that recognition of that beauty, of that form, of being something sentient in itself, changed my idea about how I saw form.
A beautiful shape is pared down to an intelligence, and it’s almost a sentient being. There’s nothing that’s out of place or that could be taken away from it. That has influenced me. Maybe that sense of saying, “Aha, that’s right” is when you’re acknowledging the intelligence of that shape. When something is slightly off, it just doesn’t get there.
A beautiful shape is pared down to an intelligence, and it’s almost a sentient being.
SC: What are you working on now?
DB: I’ve been working on a series, which is a continuation from previous work. These are the paintings where I start with splashes of gold. Most of them feature figures riding horses in a void-like space, with that sense of horse and rider becoming one.For me it’s really about the notion of the complete fusion of self and spirit. I’m also working on sculptures of horse and rider, of chariots and kings and queens. I am calling up archetypes and the idea of being on a journey.
I have taken these works into sculpture, and am working in the new medium of armatures and plaster, which are then cast into bronze. This new adventure of an unknown material is in turn suggesting other directions, and involves the physical challenge of working on a large scale and using power tools. If you want to learn focus, try balancing on a ladder, holding on with one hand, with an angle grinder in the other, trying to carve the right expression on a face! I’m always pushing beyond the limits of what I do with ease.