Kent Bellows: Soul in Motion
Opening this weekend at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha is a major exhibition of work by the late master American realist artist Kent Bellows, whose exacting drawings so deeply penetrate their subjects that they move beyond the documentation afforded by photography to capture another level of expressiveness. My rather short story for Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com) isn’t so much about his art as it is about the pains that went into organizing the exhibition, the largest single showing of his work ever assembled. The Bellows name may be new to you, but once you see his work you will recognize his genius and if you do any reading or research about the artist you will soon discover that he was widely respected in the art world. His work almost literally sold right off his easel, which meant it ended up in the hands of dozens of collectors all over country, even all over the world, a prime reason why it took some doing to get together a representative selection of his work for the show.
To view his work and to learn more about this artist, visit http://www.kentbellows.com. I will be posting other stories related to Bellows, including stories about the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts (www.kentbellows.org) that his family and friends launched in his honor.
Kent Bellows: Soul in Motion
©by Leo Adam Biga
Originally published in Metro Magazine (www.spiritofomaha.com)
Born in Blair, Neb., Bellows made Omaha his residence and artistic home. He remained here even though his work sold well through such New York galleries as Forum and his pieces were acquired by such prestigious bodies as the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Only 56 at the time of his death, the prolific artist created a body of work that proved daunting to index. Start with the fact he left behind shoddy records. Galleries representing him keep equally sparse files. Most Bellows work is in closely-held, rarely seen private collections scattered about the U.S.
A five-year journey to locate, document and catalog the work is resulting in the largest Bellows exhibition to date. Opening September 25 at Joslyn Art Museum, Beyond Realism, The Works of Kent Bellows 1970-2005, will feature more than 70 of his precisely rendered, emotionally penetrating paintings, drawings and prints. The pieces are drawn from some 25 collections. The exhibit continues through January 16, 2011.
A companion catalogue reproduces the exhibit works, plus many others. The show and book offer an unprecedented look at the Bellows oeuvre. “Nobody has ever seen that many pieces of Kent’s brought together at one time,” said Debra Wesselmann, a sister. Another sister, Robin Griess, described the scope of it all as mind-boggling. “You look at his body of work,” she said, “and it’s like many lives of art. Just so many blood-sweat-and-tears pieces, so meticulously done, so passionately done. And you think, How did this guy do it? Obviously he had to dedicate great periods of time to his work.”
Archiving it all led to many discoveries, including some remarkable things we didn’t even know existed — studies and things he did for people, said Griess. “It’s a little like hunting for treasure.” The two sisters have led this painstaking, time-intensive process. In many cases a piece’s title, date or medium varied from artist to gallery to collector. Crosschecking and verifying details is the only way to ensure accuracy.
“We feel a heavy responsibility for getting it right,” said Griess, who knows the data will guide future art historians. “We tried to do it as carefully as possible.” It meant adhering to strict procedures and collaborating with curators, gallery owners, collectors and friends of Bellows. In the end, she said, “we feel good about what we’ve done.”
Exhibit guest curator and catalogue editor, Molly Hutton of Buffalo, New York, said in an e-mail she believes the projects “will serve to establish Bellows as a key figure within the history of realist practice in this country,” adding, “He was on the verge of such recognition at the time of his death, so this in-depth presentation of his work should only fuel interest in the further study of his artmaking.”
“We’re absolutely thrilled to get it (the work) out there to the public,” said Griess. “It’s work that’s awe-inspiring. You want to take it in and see it again. They’re like pieces of literature, you can get so much from it. One of the most thrilling things for us is that this community will be seeing a lot of Kent’s work for the first time and they will be amazed that an artist of his ability lived right here in their own backyard.”
The goal of bringing Bellows more into the mainstream of public consciousness is being realized with a confluence of events this fall. Coinciding with the exhibit will be the grand opening of the Kent Bellows Studio and Center for Visual Arts. This combination mentoring project, studio space and gallery is housed in the nearly century old brick “Mahler” building, 3303 Leavenworth St., where the artist lived and worked the last several years of his life.
Upon the artist’s passing, family and friends formed the Kent Bellows Foundation, which soon launched the Bellows Studio-Center, an immersion space where young people passionate to make a life in art are mentored by professional artists. Its mantra, “igniting the creative spark,” is a homage to the influence Bellows had as a mentor to emerging artists.
Omaha native and Bellows Foundation board member Peter Buffett credits Bellows with encouraging his music. Photographer Patrick Drickey, a classmate of Bellows at Burke High, said, “Kent was my friend and counselor. He inspired me to achieve success in my field by teaching me the language of the visual arts — composition and light. Elements of what I learned from him remain as the cornerstone of my work today.” Drickey photographed most of Bellows’ work from 1970 on. Since 2008 renovations to the old Bellows studio have been underway.
Meanwhile, the mentoring project has operated out of the Bemis Underground, an apt place given that Bellows did a residency at the Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts. Students and mentors will move into “The Bellows” in time for its official opening. Parts of his old studio are intact, including his main work space on the ground floor and elaborate sets he built into the walls on the second floor.
Executive director Anne Meysenburg said visitors to the center can glimpse artifacts of Bellows’ inner world during the exhibit’s run: “We will be open every Saturday, 11 a.m. to 6 p.m., during the month of October with the intention that people can attend Beyond Realism at Joslyn and then come over to see the work-and-live space of the artist.” The center plans a formal ribbon-cutting ceremony, a community open house and a celebration for friends and stakeholders.
“The goal is to get as many people in the building as possible to witness the entire legacy of creative process that has been facilitated on Leavenworth,” said Meysenburg. “Kent left an amazing legacy we get to live and breath every day. His talent and desire to help other artists develop brought us to where we are. We are truly excited to share his talent and desire to mentor with the community. ”
Griess feels the center and exhibit will complement each other: “How many times do you get the opportunity to see an artist’s work and then to go right over to see where he completed that work, where he lived his dreams out, and where he was inspired?” The Joslyn plans classes and workshops on Bellows, his artwork and techniques.
Anything that fleshes out the Bellows story is welcomed by Hutton, whose interest in the artist began in 2004. “It has been incredibly gratifying and illuminating to have the opportunity to meet so many of Bellows’ close friends and family members and collectors of his works,” she said. “I’ve gained new insight into his rigorous working methods and routines, his feelings about being an artist in a competitive contemporary art market, his utter devotion to his family…and place, which kept him in Omaha instead of migrating to New York, as his gallery would have liked.”
All of it informs her catalogue essay and any future writing she does about Bellows. “I’ve come to appreciate how beloved he was in his community and what an infectious personality he possessed, a situation that necessitated he become more reclusive as his career surged, so that he could have the time to work.”
Joslyn Deputy Director of Collections and Programs Anne El-Omami said, “The museum has been astounded by the response from collectors of Kent’s work. Not only did they collect Bellows, but they were great friends of his, and are all committed to ensuring the legacy of this extraordinary artist. Everybody is so passionate, it’s just incredible.”
Hutton says the exhibit and catalogue “should definitely help disseminate the works to a broader audience.” The Bellows bandwagon may just be starting. Plans call for a comprehensive catalogue raisonne featuring the entirety of his life work and a traveling exhibition.
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- El Museo Latino in Omaha Opened as the First Latino Art and History Museum and Cultural Center in the Midwest (leoadambiga.wordpress.com)