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Social Scenes by a Humble Hand

By Stephen May / April 15, 1991

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.

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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.

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.