Painting the Rustic, Earthy Faces of Italy

PUGLIA, Italy — In visits to Paris, it was the locals’ “pretty, elongated noses” that transfixed artist Jennifer Bell. Now, in southern Italy, it is their ears.

“For some reason,” the 38-yearold former Shaughnessy resident explains over lunch on a bright October day in Puglia, “they are really large — and I just love that.”

Clearly, for it is an observation illustrated in many of her oil portraits, dominated by rustic, earthy paintings that evoke the spirit of Van Gogh but focus on the poorer, rural heel of Italy.

“Everything is just so appealing to me [here in Puglia],” says Bell, whose latest collection of paintings is being shipped over to North America. “People are shorter in stature so they are closer to the ground, quite literally, and their skin colour reflects the earth, and there’s real dirt under their nails. My ultimate goal would be to carry on painting these most beautiful faces that I see all the time.”

Along with works painted for an Italian show in honour of the late pope, the exhibition at the Gallery Shoal Creek in Austin, Texas, starting on Nov. 15, will feature paintings emanating from Bell’s “capricious idea” to join a restoration project working on the 14th-century masseria (farmhouse) of Jesce at the centre of an archeological area dating to the Neolithic and Bronze ages.

She worked on rebuilding stonework and floor mosaics in a project organized by the Sinergie Cooperative’s Eutropia, which also recruits university students from James Madison in Virginia and Basilicata in Potenza to repair ancient frescoes in the crypt underneath the farmhouse.

Although briefly journeying to Prague and Vienna after the restoration, her plans to set up an atelier in Paris (so often the “fuel for creating my paintings”) went awry.

“I never made it,” she says. “The ancient rhythms of the south that follow the sun, the seasons, the church bells, had captivated my mind and my heart.”

Not that it’s always been easy here.

“When you are in the countryside it’s like you’re in the wild west,” says Bell, whose works sell for between $2,000 and $7,000 US.

“They are on guard … because times have been hard and they have been through so much. You get these grumpy looks and burning eyes when people first meet you in Altamura. Then, after six months, they finally take you in.

“But you never forget that first glare.”

A child actress with roles in Disney’s The Journey of Natty Gann, Neon Rider and The Boy Who Could Fly under her maiden name of Michas (although she is now divorced), Bell first left Vancouver in her 20s to study at New York City’s American Academy of Dramatic Arts. But an introduction to the “volcanic expressionist” Gustav Rehberger forged not only a close friendship, before his death in 1995, but a whole new career.

“I became his paid assistant,” she explains, “but it was pretty silly because all I ended up doing, for example, was to find him cabs that didn’t have grates, because he didn’t like them, or he would take me to museums and explain to me the movements in a painting.”

Working for Rehberger (“even in his 80s he had the energy of a bull, and the passion of the way opera pounds in your chest”) led to five years’ schooling at the Arts Students League in New York.

“Starting to paint is a bit like throwing up — you just get out all this stuff. Also, because I was young, my art was initially very shocking, and horrific — and it’s not something I desire to do any more of again. Once Rehberger introduced me to the nude figure, which is basically all that I drew for five years, I just saw the beauty in the lines of the human body. And after that you start to see lines everywhere in landscapes and everything else. He just brought to me another way of seeing the world and a passion for art.

“He was a wonderful, wonderful man. That [connection] has been everything — I am a painter because of him and my mother, who also painted.”

Now learning Italian, Bell is also calling on an Italian heritage based in Venice two generations ago. “My grandmother made sure that everyone in Canada knew that we were from the north of Italy — not from the poorer south.”

As she explains in her gallery biography, she feels her heritage being revived: “I am discovering the soil that seeded my family. My Nonna [grandmother] would be so pleased to know that I am happy here experiencing Italy and learning her native tongue.”

The empirical education is obviously paying off. Judith Taylor, owner/director of Gallery Shoal Creek (one of two U.S. galleries — the other is in Martha’s Vineyard — where she is represented), says the transformation between the work when she first arrived and the current paintings is like the difference between “scanning a travel guide and reading a personal journal.”

“The early paintings were that of traveller soaking up the ambiance of locale,” she writes in an e-mail. “Informal portraits described the faces she saw and the sombre tones of a land unscathed by modern life. Now, she is no longer an observer, but a participant — a transplant who is experiencing the richness of life in Puglia. Her artistic eye zooms in and out, recording, on canvas, the region’s simple pleasures, rituals, and traditions. The November exhibition is full of life, laughter and labour.”

All this frenetic work came within a year of Bell losing her 26-year-old brother Christopher in a car crash in Vancouver in January. “Going back to painting afterwards, at first, seemed like a trite and frivolous activity,” she says. “But my painting did not change after his death — and that’s a good thing. I don’t want to use my strongest passion for any pain that I may carry in missing him. In my work I want to focus and highlight and move toward trying to paint the good things — pleasure, laughter, lust for life, perseverance — the building and work that goes into the human soul. Personally, I think art offers such a glorious and gorgeous retreat and escape.”

And, conversely, a reality check, judging by her contribution to the late Pope John Paul’s memorial — part of a forthcoming touring Italian exhibition. She makes reference to his words about preservation and saving the environment for the future, powerfully portrayed in Messaggi with a little girl in front of a chalkboard riddled with his words; a man restoring the fresco of Saint Donato; and a shepherd in the fields.

Neither Catholic nor Italian, she was hesitant to participate in the show (her three paintings are now part of the Shoal Creek exhibition). “I was uncomfortable at first,” she says. “I did not want to in any way offend someone so admired and respected with a stupid painting of mine. I was assured by the organizers that Pope John Paul’s words were for everyone. So I began reading about him and in my work I wanted to support his ideas of preservation and draw from my own strong beliefs in the importance of preserving history.”

Indeed, in Vancouver she was among those given a Vancouver Heritage Award of Honour in 2000 for the exterior restoration of the Connaught Apartments, 2300 West Broadway.

It looks like she will continue to preserve the faces of Parisians and Italians, rather than Canadians, for the foreseeable future.

“The Canadian face,” she explains, “is just so many things put together; it’s become more simple in a way.”

Then, as she looks out at an old man tilling the soil around a row of gnarly olive trees, Bell adds, “Whereas everything here is just so accentuated.”