Social Scenes by a Humble Hand

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AMERICA has always been populated by a variety of ethnic groups, each of which has made unique contributions to our society. This is particularly true of African-American artists, whose often-overlooked achievements have been inextricably woven into the fabric of our history. The significant accomplishments of black painters and sculptors, in a nation long influenced by racial prejudice and dominated by an all-white art establishment, are all the more remarkable because these artists often lacked traini ng and the support of patrons. Alain Locke, the intellectual godfather of the New Negro Movement which flourished after World War I, lamented a half century ago, ``The Negro's career in the fine arts is little known either to the general or the racial public.'' In recent decades, however, black artists have enjoyed greater recognition as the civil rights movement stimulated new interest in their cultural contributions. Slowly but surely, art historians and museum exhibitions have brought to public attention the work of such outstandi ng black artists as Robert S. Duncanson, Edward M. Bannister, Henry O. Tanner, Aaron Douglas, William H. Johnson, Horace Pippin, Romare Bearden, Lois Mailou Jones, and Jacob Lawrence.

Far less attention has been focused on self-taught minority artists who created nontraditional work outside the mainstream. The difficulties in learning about such unsung talents, as well as the rich rewards that can follow their discovery, were exemplified by Yale University's recent exhibition of drawings by Mary A. Bell. The resurrection of the colorful, whimsical images of this working-class black artist offers intriguing glimpses into her private fantasy world and makes one yearn to know more about their creator.

Most of the scant information about Mary Bell (1873-1941) has been gleaned from 34 letters she wrote in the late 1930s to three collectors of her work: the wife of sculptor Gaston Lachaise, writer-photographer Carl Van Vechten, and businessman Mark Lutz. We know she was born in Washington, D.C., and may have worked in various cities around the country. By the 1920s, she was employed in Boston as a domestic for either the Lachaises or for Justice Edward Pierce of the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court, whose wife was Mrs. Lachaise's sister, or for both families.

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Bell, who apparently had no family and never married, probably boarded with the families for whom she worked. In her spare time, this untrained free spirit created out of her secret dreamworld bright, droll drawings. They captivated Isabel Lachaise, who called them ``miracles'' and brought them to the attention of friends like Van Vechten.

After she left regular employment in the mid-1930s, Bell took on odd jobs, resided in several lodging houses on Greenwich Park in Boston, and worked feverishly on her drawings. Her output peaked between 1936 and 1939 when she created over 150 known works, which she sold for 50 cents each. This intense activity - she often labored past midnight to complete projects - may have been her way of combating loneliness. ``When drawing,'' she wrote, ``it seems that I am lifted far above the earth.'' Alone, ill, and nearly penniless, she appears to have stopped drawing in 1940. She was admitted to Boston State Hospital, where she died in 1941.

Van Vechten, a white man who helped promote the black arts movement known as the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920s and had a keen interest in encouraging neglected African-American talent, commissioned over 100 of her drawings, and displayed one in his New York dining room. His enthusiasm for his discovery is reflected in a 1937 letter to his friend Gertrude Stein, the Paris-based writer and salon hostess. ``Something like [French fantasy painter Henri] Rousseau,'' he wrote in describing Bell's work, ``Bu t O so different. What an artist!'' Stein, art critic Henry McBride, artist Florine Stettheimer, and others in Van Vechten's avant-garde circle acquired Bell drawings, but beyond that she was unknown.

In the early 1940s, Van Vechten included more than 100 of Bell's drawings in the large trove of works by black artists, musicians, and writers that he donated to Yale's Beinecke Library. Those drawings and Bell's accompanying letters were rediscovered in 1987 by two graduate students, Mary Kordak and Theresa Leininger, in the course of a university-wide survey of American drawings. Kordak, now the Yale Art Gallery's Museum/School Liaison, wrote her master's thesis in Afro-American Studies about Bell and organized the university's exhibition, a first-time showing of her work.

Mary Bell overcame obstacles of race, class, gender, dreary toil, and ill heath to produce a grand body of intriguing art. It was for her an outlet for many conflicting ideas and emotions which accompanied her circumscribed role as a black domestic.

In her drawings, voluptuous, elaborately coiffured ladies reminiscent of Mae West or Elizabeth Taylor, resplendent in fancy gowns, preen amidst elegant surroundings. Floating around the central woman, always depicted with an enormous head and tiny legs and feet, are furnishings and objects of female domesticity. Hover- ing off to one side is often a smaller, fawning, mustachioed man in a tuxedo. Most figures portrayed are white, although a few drawings feature ``Octoroon'' or ``Creole'' beau ties or regal ``Ethiopians.''

Each vignette is drawn with confident color, lively imagination, charming wit, and the distorted perspective common to many folk artists. Each cartoon-like figure is meticulously presented in bright wax crayon and colored pencil on tissue paper whose translucency permitted Bell to trace her own work or images from magazines. Each scene is carefully described in a delicately penned, title label affixed to the top border. The artist shipped her drawings with spritely notes to her patrons, often conveying little homilies revealing her deep religious faith and thoughts emanating from her special fantasy world. ONE time Bell explained why beautiful women dominated her drawings. ``Of course it is proper to have a lady in everything,'' she wrote Lutz, ``because she is the cream of the earth and I think everyone likes cream.'' In Kordak's view, Bell created these strong women as a means of escape from her own ``position of powerlessness. ... [They] were deliberately imbued with power by a woman who was without a great deal of it in her personal life.'' Bell clearly understood, says Kordak, ``that the women she portrayed derived their power from being born of a certain class and race.''

It seems clear that contemporary magazines and movies provided much inspiration for Bell's colorful women and debonair men. She was familiar with the hour-glass shapes, flamboyant attire, and confident personas of such Hollywood sex symbols as Betty Grable and Mae West, and sophisticated hearthrobs like Ronald Coleman and Clark Gable.

It is intriguing to speculate how much influence the sculpture of Gaston Lachaise may have had on her art. His gigantic nude Amazons were similar in form to Bell's clothed female figures. She certainly would have seen Lachaise's work in his home and in the house of the Pierces, his in-laws. It must have left an impression on the keen-eyed domestic-artist.

Bell could hardly identify with the beautiful and powerful women she depicted because she was an outsider who would never be part of the lifestyle they represented. ``Their world was not open to her, except in her dreams and through her drawings,'' says Kordak. For example, the two white females in ``Mother and Daughter'' are placed in a particularly elaborate garden with their fine house in the background. In this drawing and others, such as ``Sweet Violet,'' the artist devoted extraordinary attention to giving her heroines prominent hairdos. Like most domestics, Bell covered her hair to protect it while working, which likely increased her interest in endowing her females with full, luxuriant tresses.

When depicting white and black women in the same scene, Bell always made the Caucasian figure larger and better dressed than her African-American counterpart, indicating the former's higher social position. Similarly, Bell's art accorded a higher status to lighter-skinned blacks, reflecting a view held by many African Americans in her day. This societal judgment is illustrated in the informal beauty contest among ``American mixtures of the Ethiopian race'' in one drawing. The artist clearly regards the largest, best-dressed, perfectly coiffed, light-skinned ``Octoroon'' as the most beautiful and important person. The smaller, darker ``Creole'' woman is not quite as well turned out, while the even darker ``Chocolate type'' is the smallest and least well dressed of the trio.

While in her modest way Bell sought and thrived on recognition of her art, she adamantly refused to acknowledge her own talent, consistently attributing her works to God.

Bell's deep religious nature was manifested in daily church attendance, efforts to help those less fortunate than herself, and the insertion of an oval portrait of the virgin Mary in many of her works. She also often included her personal trademark - a bell - in her drawings.

Bell's humor and whimsical nature as well as a number of her concerns are manifested in a drawing with a typically elaborate, idiosyncratic title: Thoughts of a happy home. All I want to make me happy is some one to call me pappy. me too child. I can see that cute little creature now; crawling around and calling for me. O! I is so happy love. This scene of domestic happiness sums up all the things Bell lacked in her life but celebrated in her art - beauty, fine clothes and an elaborate haird o, a suave male companion, and a smiling child in a flower-strewn environment.

``The distorted spaces in her drawings and the discomfort with which she forced the viewer to meet the exchanged gazes of her dazzling array of women symbolizes for me the awkward and uncomfortable space she occupied in her own life,'' says Kordak. ``Her feet were the tiny feet of the females who, with few exceptions, rarely touched the firm earth.''

Bell's most prolific period in the late 1930s coincided with a surge of national interest in folk art and heightened recognition of the importance of African-American culture. But her lowly station in life and innate personal reserve inhibited her potential for public recognition. Bell even refused to come downstairs to meet her patron Van Vechten when he arrived, unannounced, at her Boston rooming house. Indeed, among her benefactors outside Boston, only Lutz ever laid eyes on her. He described her as a ``medium black woman of about five feet in height.''

IN spite of the support of influential patrons, Bell's work never received the public acclaim accorded other self-trained artists like Pippin. She never had a public exhibition, and is not mentioned in any survey of African-American art, much less in any traditional art historical work.

Thanks to Mary Kordak and her Yale associates, fifty years after she died in obscurity, Mary Bell and her unique drawings are enjoying the recognition they deserve. Her delightful art demonstrates why we need to discover and look more closely at work produced by artists outside the mainstream of American society.

On April 15, the Home Forum published an essay on artist Mary Bell. The captions on the two drawings were reversed: The larger portrait should have been titled 'Sweet Violet' and the smaller 'Mother and Daughter.'

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