In the newest exhibition at Northwest African American Museum (NAAM), portraits take center stage. “Jeremy Bell: Utopian Blackness” introduces the viewer to more than a dozen Black people including “Roxanne,” “Grace” and “Rebekkah.” Roxanne’s afro perfectly frames her face. She exudes confidence as she meets the gaze of the viewer. All of the works in the show are intimate portraits. Each has a familiarity that makes it recognizable, as if they are someone we know in real life.
As an artist, Bell enjoys exploring different mediums and techniques. Currently his portraits incorporate an abstract element. In “Inauguration 2,” a woman wears a gold crown. Splatters, drips and strokes of multi-colored paint surround her joyful expression.
“Abstraction provides this random element, which always keeps things new and fresh for me,” said Bell. “I’m always kind of interested in the way the paint falls on the canvas, the type of conversation that goes back and forth between myself and the work.”
He’s drawn to creating portraits because he thinks the human experience carries a lot of power. Specifically, the expression is what’s most important. In his view, expression gives the work life. The subjects in “Utopian Blackness” show a range of emotion from contemplative to focused.
“When you give them that expression there’s an inherent narrative that’s almost built into the piece,” said Bell. “It kind of asks of the viewer to fill in the blank. And in doing that, the work becomes very relatable to other people.”
Bell lives in the Midwest but he grew up in Seattle. He’s always been artistic, which showed itself in other ways aside from drawing and dancing. Bell often rearranged his room and the living room, to his mother’s displeasure. While he enjoyed being creative, he was also aware of the phrase “starving artist.” It was not the type of life he would seek for himself.
After high school it was time for Bell to leave his parents’ home. He weighed his options against what he wanted to accomplish in the coming years — save money and go to school — so he enlisted in the United States Air Force. The armed services took him to Florida. He was able to use his talents at one point as a visual information specialist. After serving, he enrolled in classes at the University of Tampa. While there, a painting class reignited his love for “manual arts and the concept of producing an image that can bring power into the world and impact it in some type of way.”
He graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in painting and drawing, then went on to receive a Master of Fine Arts at Montclair State University in New Jersey. Bell has exhibited in numerous group shows in several cities across the country.
The award-winning artist is currently a civil employee for the Army Corps of Engineers in Omaha. Essentially his work includes graphic design, photography, videography and audio-visual support. He’s able to juggle the two demands by working in intense spurts for a month or so at a time. During these periods he’s painting before and after work, building frames and doing web design. He’ll take a break, typically in front of a television, for a few weeks, then start the process again.
Thankfully, Bell is sharing his gift with audiences. His expertise shines through each portrait. In “Grow Thyself,” a man’s face is surrounded by a bed of flowers. Bell has created alluring works that leave you wondering what else there is to learn about the subjects depicted.
“Utopian Blackness” is more than just the name of the exhibition. It’s also a question. Bell wants viewers to ponder: How does it manifest itself in the world? Is it something that’s achievable? And what does it look like? While Blackness is in the title and his portraits exalt Black culture, Bell said the show isn’t exclusively for Black people. Everyone is invited. He’s interested in starting a conversation.
Mirrors interspersed throughout the gallery bring the audience into the show, briefly moving them beyond just being a spectator.
Bell’s work is inspired by a drive to be the best person he can be and honoring his creative gifts. With each new portrait he finds himself growing and developing through the art. On a grander level, he also has his sights set on how his work today will impact future generations.
“In my mind I can almost see them in the future, you know, 2,000 years down the road,” said Bell. “How can these paintings influence and shape the future? Because we kind of do it now with other ancient cultures. We look at the things they left behind and we build this narrative and this story about what type of people were they.”
“Utopian Blackness” is a compelling exhibition of works conveying the richness of Black life.
WHAT: “Jeremy Bell: Utopian Blackness”
WHEN: Runs until March 24
WHERE: NAAM, 2300 S. Massachusetts St., Seattle
Lisa Edge is a Staff Reporter covering arts, culture and equity. Have a story idea? She can be reached at lisae (at) realchangenews (dot) org. Follow Lisa on Twitter @NewsfromtheEdge
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