We touched base with teacher and renowned artist Michael Bell, who has been commissioned to make portraits for clientele, such as John Gotti and various actors from hit movies and shows, like The Sopranos and Goodfellas. He is active in the Visual Journaling movement and gives workshops all over the United States. We asked him a couple of questions on finding his own authentic voice and the importance of narrative.
In the wake of familial tragedy, you took to art as a way to get through hardship. It seems as if you took something that might have been otherwise seen as a “coping method,” as an opportunity to hone in on your craft. Can you talk a little bit about that?
My road was never easy, but in addition to being an artist, I’m a fighter, and I’ve always found there is always more worth fighting for out there. I’m also the kind of artist that believes in bringing the fight, leaving my marks in ways that cannot be ignored. I believe if you use your own stories as fuel for creation, it’s a positive way to not only cope, but as a means to do something constructive, as opposed to destructive, with what life throws your way. My “Relics of Childhood” piece (that infamous Red Box), began almost two decades after living through what I’ve described in my TED talk as the childhood trauma of living with the great loss of losing a sister, and in turn, having to watch my mother fall into a deep depression due to the loss, which became too much for her to handle. The piece became my way of exploring what it must have been like for her, and as a way for others to explore what it was like to also be me at that time.
Whenever you create art about something so personal, I look at it as the opportunity not necessarily to hone in on your craft, but as a way to help you express what frequently words fail to accurately describe. More often than not, this will become a way for the creative process to evolve, but for me, it never begins with that as the initial intention. I have found visual journaling to be the best way for me to hone in on my craft and process all that I’m going through in life, as a place to experiment and explore life’s very personal issues in a private place that I consider sacred ground.
In your TedX talk at Bergen Community College, you talk a lot about narrative and authenticity. What advice would you give for budding artists who are searching for their own “voice.” With so many outside influences and creative styles, how can an artist truly recognize what is personally authentic for them?
I believe it’s in everyone already, but everyone is too busy looking outside of themselves instead of looking directly within. I’ll often have other artists ask me “how I made it” and some even go as far as to think if they do exactly what I’ve done, follow a similar path to mine (as if following some blueprint for success) that they will achieve the same. But then they’re not creating art from the heart, they’re just copying. And then there’s no soul built into that formula, no originality or authenticity.
I once sat in on a talk with world renowned artist Chuck Close, who described authenticity best when he was speaking about his college days at Yale. He explained how when being critiqued once, the professor started pointing out to him all the amazing influences of this painter and that painter found in each one of his works lining the walls of his studio. When the professor was done, instead of feeling proud that his professor noticed all these famous artists that were obviously influencing his pieces he said to himself, “Okay, there’s all these other artists present in my work…but where am I? Where’s my voice? I’m nowhere to be found…” This is when he decided to take the proverbial fork in the road and try taking the road less traveled. He said it best as, “If you want to separate your work from everyone else’s, every time you come to a Y in the route, take the most difficult fork, because everyone else will take the easiest route, and if you continue, pretty soon you’ll find yourself all alone.” And, by all alone, he’s talking about you doing what only you can do in only the way you, alone could do it.
As for recognizing your own style, the only way to do that is to create a large enough body of work in order for you to be able to recognize the sea you’re actually swimming in.
Again, from the same TedX talk, you brought up narrative. In what ways can artists incorporate their individual, unique narrative into their creative endeavours & what power does a personal narrative draw?
Years ago I created this project called “31 Nights,” which I’m turning into a fine art book to help other artists find their style. This first began for me as 31 nights in self-portraiture, all self-portraits from direct observation using 31 different prompts (titles) that you, as an artist, would have to re-interpret visually using yourself as the model. Over the course of the month, not only do you get really good technique-wise, but you also learn how to create narratives. I believe there’s power in using prompts, and this helps draw out personal narratives. This can be done as drawings, paintings or as photography.
The power in drawing out personal narratives from our own lives lies in the fact we are speaking from a place of authenticity, and telling a story that we know so intimately, from our own experiences, told from our own unique point of view. And, everybody’s got a story. Sometimes, even the ordinary can become extraordinary when made into art. It’s what I mean when I say, like I did in my TED talk, “the most important job of an artist is to draw a line from your life to your art that is straight and clear.”
You’ve now been commissioned to do some incredible pieces. John Gotti! Wow! I know for many artists, sharing personal work is very vulnerable. Do you encourage young artists to share work even as their style is developing? In what ways were you presenting your art when you first began your career?
Thank you. We are always evolving, always developing, so I do encourage young artists to be fearless and show their work, no matter where they think their skill level is at. Work that I thought was good twenty years ago is terrible in contrast to what I can do now, but in other ways, I actually appreciate those early works even more knowing they came from a place of pure spontaneous creation at that time. These works also map out a time period in my life that I can always revisit just by looking at the work and recalling what it felt like to be me at that point in my life and career and as an artist.
If you look at the differences between the painting I did of John Gotti back in ’91 entitled “Safety Social Club” to my ’02 John Gotti “America” painting to my recent 2015 “Shadow of my Father” painting, I definitely got better technique-wise, in terms of realism and the work’s progress from concept to execution. But, my style is still ever present throughout each.
So, it’s important to look to your own works for the evolution of your own style, and it’s important to be okay with being vulnerable. There’s a lot of vulnerability in my work, almost an equal amount of vulnerability as there is boldness and confidence.
As far as showing my work, it began as a child seeing my own Grandmother, Violet showing her paintings and winning outdoor art shows in Lyndhurst, New Jersey. My parents began entering me in shows as early as when I won my first art show at the age of 5. After college, I began showing portraits I’d created for some of the guys from the hit HBO series “The Sopranos” right alongside them at street festivals. They invited me to where we’d do print signings of my originals. Later, I’d become involved with charitable causes and auctions of my paintings with other celebrities. And now, my art has even become John Gotti Junior’s cover art for his new book, “Shadow of my Father” and is seen by millions of people across the world. So, for young artists out there, show your work by any means possible. Otherwise it could end up becoming the greatest work of art nobody ever gets to see. So, get it out there!
At Creatubbles, one of our goals is that young people share and inspire others around the world with their creations. What would you say to kids who may not be traditionally trained and/or don’t have access to standard materials to create?
Never let something like “natural born talent” or “materials” stand in your way of greatness. Some of the greatest artists I’ve ever helped mentor didn’t become top in their graduating art classes due to their talent level, it was always due to their level of commitment to the process – their work ethic. Chuck Close says “inspiration is for amateurs.” I agree. It’s about the work. It’s always just about the work. Some days I don’t feel like going to the studio or to the boxing gym, but I still go.
Jim Gandolfini, who played Tony Soprano once said, “There’s a lesson to be learned in that. In the repetition. Working hard every day, even when you don’t want to.” As for materials, I teach a Gifted and Talented Program to some of the “best of the best” student artists in the country. We run it on a shoe-string budget and often use found objects and very non-traditional materials. It’s all about doing your very best with whatever you’re given, have access to, or can work with. So, never let materials, or lack thereof, get in the way of doing something truly innovative. A friend of mine, Phil Hansen, who has also given inspiring TED talks on embracing limitations, has said to me that sometimes, embracing limitations is the ultimate form of liberation…as a way to transcend them, whatever our limitations may be. I think that’s also great advice.
There’s a narrative in our lives and in our work, and each of us has a story. There’s also a narrative awaiting you on the blank pages of the next chapter in your journey. Whatever your journey’s been like, it’s up to the fighter in you to use any of your accomplishments as a reminder you will see success again, just the same way as it’s up to you to use any disappointments to crystalize focus; use any doubt to fuel hunger.
You want it – go get it artists. It’s as simple as that. And when doing so, be fearless. – Michael Bell