Building things from his imagination: A conversation with found object sculpture artist, Jeff Bell

Story by Kyesha Jennings

Tuesday, July 12, 2022

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. 

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.

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.

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.

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.

Kyesha Jennings

Kyesha Jennings is the content director for the North Carolina Arts Council where as a part of the marketing and communications team, she curates, produces, and develops content that highlights the diversity and vitality of the arts in our state. An award-winning hip-hop scholar, Kyesha is a fourth-year Ph.D. candidate at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, where her research primarily focuses on Black women writers, hip-hop feminism, and popular culture. Her writing has been published in both academic and non-academic outlets such as LifeHacker, HotNewHipHop, Vulture, Indy Week, CLTure, and Scalawag Magazine.

Artist Spotlight: Mipso

Mipso is a band that defies classification. The iconic North Carolina sounds of bluegrass and old-time flow throughout their music, which is equally influenced by the Triangle’s storied indie music community.

Since 2010, Piedmont-natives Joe Terrell, Libby Rodenbough, Wood Robinson and Jacob Sharp have created music that marries the old and the new, bridging traditional rural music expressions with the sounds of urban North Carolina: think Doc Watson meets Ryan Adams. Now touring on their fifth studio album, Edges Run, the band has been named by Rolling Stone as an “Artist You Need to Know.” Equal parts performers and students of our state’s musical heritage, the band is deeply engaged with the transmission of music knowledge. Fiddler and vocalist Libby Rodenbough is a member of the North Carolina Arts Council Board, and collectively the group has incorporated educational visits to public schools while touring to spread the word about traditional music. You can catch them live in concert on Saturday, Nov. 10 at the Haw River Ballroom.

“People often say it must be something in the water in North Carolina that brings so many musicians together and makes so much music happen, but it isn’t the water. It’s the community.” 
— Wood Robinson


“It’s very likely that we wouldn’t be a band if we hadn’t started in the Triangle and in North Carolina.” 
— Libby Rodenbough

You have done some educational programming while on the road. Will you describe that and why it matters to you

Libby: Not long ago, we did an education program in Tallahassee where we went to elementary, middle, and high schools and talked about some basics of string band history. There were kids in the audience who had never seen a banjo before who found that very exotic. Folk music can be really exotic if it wasn’t a part of the landscape of your upbringing. Teaching reminds us why that type of music is special and how it relates to the story of America and the story of immigrants which is an important message for the times.

There isn’t a super stark and clean divide between commercial and vernacular music, but you could say that music that is made primarily with commercial purposes in mind is probably going to seek to be encompassing rather than specific. I think there’s more space in vernacular music for specificity. Stories about actual experiences. Stories that are specific to geography and time. It would be a shame to lose those in a flattened landscape of pop music. I think both of those realms of art are really important. The vernacular music by nature of not being commercial is more at risk, so that’s where the public funding has to go.

Why does public funding for the arts matter?

Libby: I have a little anecdote from my personal life. When I was in college, I helped put on this music festival called Convergence at UNC that was very small but took an incredible amount of work and was just run by college students. It was a festival of Southern music, and it was completely funded by grant funding. Some of that came from within the university some of it came from arts councils and the humanities council. Little projects like that just wouldn’t exist without public arts funding.

Wood: People equate public funding with huge installments like the Kennedy Center and Lincoln Center. Those places in major urban areas are going to be fine. Smaller funds are so much more important for making sure that arts are not a product to be served to the elites.

Will you share a story about how the arts have impacted the way you see the world?

Jacob: I’ve learned lessons through touring and playing music that [shape] my notion of my identity as a North Carolinian and Southerner, and more broadly as an American in a time as politically and socially chaotic as this one. I’m really grateful for the way I could connect with tiny communities across the country that I don’t necessarily have much in common with on the surface. We do commune over the experiences and emotions that we’ve been encouraged to express through our music, and though it’s easier to highlight the differences we have with one another, we’re a lot more similar than we believe or that we’re told that we should believe.

Joe: All of us went to public schools. Public education was really important to us, but I think the most important things in terms of who we are, and how we relate to each other, and what our community means…I really got to the heart of it through writing and through music. It’s incredibly important for a community to produce something, and to pave the roads, and to be economically vibrant, but I hope we can keep in mind that at the end of the day once you do have food on the table... part of the point of all of us being here is to ask each other why are we here, and what does it mean to be in a community together, and what does it mean to be alive.

*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity

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