Collage of the work of Jeff Bell, an assemblage artist

Building Things From His Imagination: A Conversation With Found Object Sculpture Artist, Jeff Bell

Author: Kyesha Jennings

Jeff Bell, our new executive director, is an accomplished found object sculptor who has exhibited his mixed-media installations statewide. His approach to art involves deconstructing everyday objects that invoke his own memories or popular culture.

Bell was introduced to the arts at a young age and says a local arts council was one of the first spaces to validate his identity as an artist. He describes his method this way: “I just start making objects, realizing that I will make mistakes and have to rework things, but it keeps me engaged and thinking throughout the build. I enjoy the surprises that happen and the unexpected directions that the process can take.”

As a child, Bell was most influenced by the craftsmanship of his father and grandfather. He spent a lot of time watching both men saw, glue, and nail objects in their workshop. “I never thought about their work as art at the time. I now see how important observing what they did is to what I do.”

Before joining the Arts Council, Bell had early, direct professional involvement in the Nasher Museum of Art, at Duke University; the art collection at 21c Museum Hotel, in Durham; and the Vollis Simpson Whirligig Park and Museum, in Wilson. He has worked in and with a wide variety of art museums, galleries, organizations, and university departments, both as an arts administrator and as an artist.

In a recent interview, Bell talked about his work as an artist. 

Nautilus (from RePiano) - a wooden boat-like structure made from piano parts

What inspires Jeff

I wanted to create an entire show out of one source object and I decided to use a piano. I had taken apart a piano while in graduate school and marveled at all of the different materials and shapes. There were 12 objects in the exhibition at Spectre Arts, Durham, NC and I called the show RePiano. The Nautilus was in the center and the other sculptures lived around it. The shape of the cast-iron plate inside the piano reminded me of the fin of the submarine in the Disney movie 20,000 Leagues under the Sea. I decided to make a sculpture that mimicked the form of that ship. I built a frame around the metal plate and cut down wood that I steamed and bent into strips. The Nautilus was also exhibited at the Nasher Museum of Art, Duke University, and at SECCA, Winston-Salem, NC.

Jeff Bell - Small Blocks (from RePiano) - a small box-like wooden sculpture with one curved side

This small object was one of my favorites from this group. It came together quickly but I felt like it was a complete idea. The form is kind of reminiscent of an old radio but quite a bit smaller.

Jeff Bell - Mountain King (from Within/Without (Very Metal)) - assemblage sculpture with wood and metal

This was a fun sculpture to make. I had been reworking two different sculptures for a long time and finally decided to cut them up and combine them. As with Nautilus, the Mountain King was the central figure for a show I created at Spectre Arts, Durham NC. All of the work in that grouping—called Within/Without (Very Metal)—was responding to things that interested me as a teenager—the music, books, and pop culture that I grew up on.

Jeff Bell - Top Fuel Stave (from Within/Without (Very Metal) - assemblage sculpture of a drag racer from wooden and metal parts

This was in the same exhibition with the Mountain King and is very much about the type of music I listened to in high school. The drag racer is made up of parts from old playground equipment and a bicycle. The stave church is made of parts from a sewing table and drawers from an office desk. The Mountain King and Top Fuel Stave were also exhibited at SECCA, Winston-Salem, NC.

Who are your biggest artistic influences?

There are lots. I always really liked the work of Bill Woodrow. In the seventies, he would cut out sections from found materials in order to make objects. The new form was connected to the old. That way of being aware of how the artist physically created the new sculpture has always been important in my mind.

Also, the sculptor Al Frega has been a big artistic influence. I was fortunate to do an internship with him when I was at UNC Wilmington, and I continued to work with him after we both moved to Durham. In addition to learning metalworking skills and understanding how carefully he considered materials and forms, I really saw what it looked like to be a professional artist.

How do you define success as an artist?

This is difficult. For me, it’s about feeling that I’ve said something in the finished work. I try to create very quickly, without a lot of planning, and the result is never something I could have initially envisioned. I hope that there is something undefinable and surprising in the resulting sculpture or drawing.

Related Topics: