June 20, 2024

Grace Bell: An Artist on Artists

By Curt Swarm

How do you describe an artist? You talk about their art. Well, what if the artist has more than one art form as most artists do? You talk about each of their art forms as defining part of the artist, like one piece of the pie. In Grace Bell’s artist portfolio, there is photography, music, jewelry, metal smithing, reflexology (healing is creation or creativity), managing an art gallery, and more to come.

Born in Memphis, Tenn., and spending her first seven years in Toledo, Ohio, Grace Bell mainly grew up in La Jolla (pronounced “Hoya”), Calif., in what is known as the Gold Coast or Riviera of California. It was idyllic: beaches, ocean, sand, sun, surfers … with an average temperature of 68 degrees year-round. In the second grade she learned to paint without brushes at an Art Center next door to the school (now the San Diego Museum of Contemporary Art- SDMCA). The Art Center had an exhibit of all the childrens’ artwork. They chose Grace’s painting as the opening piece for the show. That got her to thinking, “Hmm, I want to be an artist.”

Given a Brownie camera when she was eight years old, photography was it for Grace. She could take a picture, have it developed and printed and in a day or so…A PICTURE! Twenty-some years later, after a two year course in photography at San Diego City College, Grace bought used darkroom equipment, converted part of her one-car garage into a darkroom and voila! … her pictures … tweaked to taste!

When Grace was in the ninth grade, her parents sent her to boarding school in Washington DC to broaden her experience. She was in class with politicians’ children. She thought, “There’s a world out here I haven’t seen before.”

She never took a music lesson but learned to play the flute by ear. Grace was also making ceramic jewelry and doing metal smithing and pottery.

In Los Angeles Grace met a Buddhist monk. He told her, “The Western mind is like a squirrel in a cage. Running all the time. There is no time for thought, no time to hear what you’re being told. You need to meditate.” Grace learned to meditate and found focus. It changed her life. The Monk had her paint her mirrors black. “You are not to look at yourself. You are to be in love with this world and life.” Although she no longer paints her mirrors black, she still lives by his wise words.

Grace had an art gallery in Hermosa Beach, near the airport in Los Angeles, right around the corner from the world-famous Jazz Lighthouse. Aspiring artists could show their work. David Hammons, now a well-known artist, had a reception in Grace’s gallery during the turbulent 60s. In the late 70s, he was featured at the fore-mentioned SDMCA.

Grace always felt she wanted to pursue healing. In her thirties in Iowa she met Edna King, a reflexologist, who said, “Grace, you ought to study Reflexology.” After moving back to La Jolla in 1977, a friend of Grace’s mother was dying of cancer. Grace told her, “I don’t know if I can help your cancer, but I can help your pain.” Her mother’s friend had been given four months to live. She lived four years. Word got around and Grace spent 35 years practicing Reflexology.

Grace Bell is best known for her photographs of jazz, blues, avant-garde, and most recently country musicians. Her photos in color & B&W of (in alphabetical order) Count Basie, Dave Brubeck, John Cage, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, Bo Diddley, Ella Fitzgerald, Stan Getz, David Grisman, Herbie Hancock, John Lee Hooker, B.B. King, Taj Mahal, Sonny Rollins, Big Mama Thornton, William Elliot Whitmore and hundreds more are regarded as among the best photos ever taken of them. Although Grace does not use Photoshop, she has converted her analog pictures to digital and in the process learned to print, edit and publish digitally.

As if that weren’t enough, Grace Bell, along with her husband Will Parsons, Patrick Hazell, John Lake, Michael Lytle and Dave Olive are in an improvisational ensemble that originated in Iowa City in the 1970′s. Their music is best documented in the album “Iowa Ear Music” (1976 as vinyl and 2009 in a revised CD). A Downbeat magazine review, that awarded the album its highest rating (5 stars) and listed the 45 participating musicians, concluded with: “The noteworthy aspects are many. There are fine individual moments… And there are four years of painstaking editing and trial mixes… Most significant, however, is the Iowans’ indomitable spirit of exploration and free-flowing imagination.” Both LP and CD covers featured Grace’s photos.

Grace hopes to publish a book of her life’s work with the various included artists writing about each other. If she gets this book published (and I have a feeling she will), snap it up. It will be one-of-a-kind. Sort of like Grace Bell herself. You have to admire her raw talent, creativity and, most importantly, her persistence.

Grace and her husband split time between San Diego and Keokuk. While in Keokuk they live in a modest cabin at their son John Patterson’s “Green Frog Distillery” north of Keokuk. To contact Grace Bell email her at gracebakerbell@aol.com.

Contact Curt Swarm at curtswarm@yahoo.com