If you fell in love with the iconic Fort Smith scenes by artist John Bell Jr. exhibited in 2018, the Fort Smith Regional Art Museum has exciting news. Bell’s work, collected in a new showcase titled “John Bell Jr.: Coming Home,” will open Oct. 29 in the new Sandi and Sandy Sanders Gallery for the Permanent Collection.
“Over the past couple of years, RAM has received several wonderful donations to our permanent collection, which has been growing for seven decades,” says Julie Moncrief, the museum’s development director. “We are approaching our second 75 years of operation, and it made sense to really try to obtain funding and make the wonderful changes that are now under construction: a permanent collection gallery and increased art storage. We are busting at the seams with the permanent collection, and now our community, region and tourists will be able to see this great art that has been in storage. We’ll have three rotating exhibitions of the permanent collection annually.”
The $100,000 expansion project was funded by a grant from the Windgate Foundation, matched by a donation from former Fort Smith Mayor Sandy Sanders and his wife, Moncrief explains.
“When we discussed our receipt of the grant with our board, Sandy Sanders – our current board president – was overjoyed to make the matching donation,” she says. “He believes that the comprehensive availability of arts, including music, visual arts, theater, dance, etc., are important parts of a vibrant and growing community.”
FSRAM’s permanent collection has been growing exponentially behind the scenes, Moncrief says.
“The purchase of an artwork every year from RAM’s Annual Invitational, our group exhibition held since 1948 that attracts entries from across the nation, is one way we’ve built an amazing permanent collection,” she explains. “The 350-plus collection of artworks also includes donations of art by artists and individuals, and pieces our board has acquired. Every piece — whether it’s a painting, photography, sculpture, mixed media or fiber art — is a great work of art.”
But Moncrief admits the opening exhibition in the new space will be unique.
“Making it extra special is that the exhibition is RAM’s first showing of our newly acquired collection of original John Bell Jr. paintings, sketches and studio accoutrements,” she says. “We received this tremendous gift earlier this year, and we’re really beside ourselves.
“John Bell Jr. is so much a native son to Fort Smith and the surrounding area,” Moncrief enthuses. “We hold his life, his art and his journey as an artist near and dear to our hearts. His iconic paintings of Fort Smith’s Garrison Avenue and other Arkansas locations, set in the late 1800s, are treasured by so many people, and now, RAM will get to tell the ‘whole story’ of John Bell Jr. with artifacts from his early jobs, paintings most people have never seen and photographs of his childhood. We are launching the John Bell Jr. Legacy Project that will guide our efforts from now on as the new ‘home’ of John Bell.”
Although he never wanted to include his disability in a discussion of his work, Bell’s story is also one of a kind. He was born in 1937 with cerebral palsy; his wife, Maxine, had polio; and they raised daughter Lisa from their wheelchairs. In spite of the challenges, Bell earned a regional, if not national, reputation for paintings that captured both the heritage of the state he loved and its magic.
“I can still remember chugging T-models, the ice man, anxiety about the war, radio plays, back yard clothes lines with sheets flowing in the breeze, and those small things that form the foundation for your life,” Bell wrote before his death in November 2013 at the age 0f 76. “My parents came from coal miners and farmers in eastern Oklahoma, but moved to Fort Smith to start a new life. I was born here along with my two sisters and a brother. All of our memories and influences are of eastern Oklahoma and western Arkansas, which is reflected in my art.”