Make sure you bring a bucketload of humour, all the wit you can spare and a dose of nostalgia when you come to the opening of Michael Bell's new exhibition, Parade, at the new Performance Arts Culture space in Cessnock when it opens on February 23.
The show will feature more than 40 works by Bell, a prolific and well-loved Newcastle artist. Some of the works are new, like his London Underground series featuring interpretations of the meanings of some of the more obscure stops. Another sequence features his various own dogs waiting in his art studio for him to take them for a walk.
There are a few giant canvases, including one of his favourite subject, Newcastle's "Dog Beach", which Bell has painted his interpretation of countless times - to the point where he swore off painting it anymore, only to be inspired to paint it again to include a feature of the beach he'd never considered before - the teepee-shaped stacks of driftwood. Another huge canvas features a petting zoo, inspired by a visit by his granddaughter.
Reaching back into his own colourful history - he came through Newcastle Art School and splashed on to the scene with the Castanet Club and Triple J, doing work for Mambo (his peers included pop art icon Martin Sharp, Reg Mombassa, and writer Mark Mordue - who will open the show at Cessnock) - the show will include some three-dimensional pieces like Whale Car Wash, Devils from Dazu, and Dave Graney in Full Flight.
For Bell, it was pure destiny he would become an artist.
"I was drawing at school - all kids draw," he says of the fact his interest was always there. "I just kept on drawing.
"I was greatly encouraged. I went to school at East Maitland. My parents [Joy and Jack Bell], they were just very, very encouraging.
"After high school, there was really no decision but to just go straight to art school. And that's when I really loved and studied, art school was fantastic. I loved every day of it."
The Newcastle Art School was on the corner of Union Street and Parkway Avenue during Bell's era.
"It was the old teachers college. It was an art school for three years. All those old classrooms were given to art students - everyone had their own studios, It was fantastic," Bell says.
"Freewheels [Theatre-in-Education] were next store. That's when I met up with the Castanets and started doing stuff with them. They would come over and look at my stuff, and I'd go back and watch them do stuff."
The art of resourcefulness stayed with Bell to this day.
"It was the era of punk, do-it-yourself ideas," Bell says. "Let's do something to make a show. Like the sign of the Castanet Club was made of old school desks we found under the classrooms that were left over from the teachers' college. So we got them out, used this old jigsaw to make this massive sign, and it became a big thing. We toured Edinburgh [Fringe Festival]. It was a fantastic time."
THE LUCKY DAYS
As a student and young artist, Bell lived in share houses and terraces in Cooks Hill and on The Hill, and found studio space on Darby Street and then, the Lucky Country Hotel, where he kept a space for 18 years.
"It's totally unrecognisable," he says of The Lucky Hotel of today compared to when he had a studio there. "It had blue carpets. It was filthy. But it was a great studio. I paid $30 a week for 18 years."
There were other artists there, including Paul Maher and John Morris.
"I was the longest tenant," Bell says. "I was always worried about getting kicked out with the change of publicans. But it was so hard to get to they couldn't use it for anything else, as long as we paid the nominal rent, which was nothing. I would have stayed there."
For the last decade, Bell has worked out of the studio in his backyard. It's a former mechanic's garage with laneway access and a high ceiling, perfect for an artist. His wife, Claire Martin, also an artist, has a separate studio only metres from Bell in the spacious backyard.
MUSIC AND ART
The luxury of a home studio means Bell can work in the quiet and cool of night after dinner, his most productive hours. And, he can play all the music he wants while painting, which he does as a big fan of Spotify and a music lover from way back.
"I listen to music all the time,' he says. "I listen to and pick up different things, ideas, images from the music sometimes."
His current favourite bands on rotation are Big Thief and Polar Bear. But his tastes are wide - he notes watching David Byrne's American Utopia concert film on SBS last weekend. And, of course, his good friend Mark Mordue, wrote the acclaimed Nick Cave early years biography, Boy on Fire.
Bell's Cessnock exhibit includes some music-inspired works, a couple of three-dimensional works depicting Dave Graney interacting with fans at gigs nearly 25 years ago. Both works have remnants of the filthy blue carpet found in the Lucky Hotel - a humorous reminder of the roots of rock if ever there was one.
HIS OWN DIRECTION
In the catalogue for the Parade show, Bell references his themes and influences as such: "Thematically, I think my work is mostly about humans in ordinary suburban places; streets, parks, the beach - and the few interiors are based on my studio.
"Of course, dogs of no particular breed run through nearly all of my art works. Their role is of a loyal companion and friend.
"Technically, I like my work to look handmade. This might sound like an odd thing to say. But I am certainly conscious that my hand is evident in the paint application, the drawing and the cut-outs.
"My pictures are certainly not photo-realist or photographic! My interest in the handmade goes back to early art school days learning about Art Brut, naive art and outsider art. I am still interested in all these art movements, and the underlying emotion within."
His works are held by the National Gallery of Australia, the National Library of Australia, Newcastle Art Gallery, Maitland Regional Art Gallery and private collectors far and wide, from Ireland, to Norway and Australia. He's represented by Flinders Street Gallery in Sydney (where he has a show in May).
Bell has been a finalist in the Archibald Prize and the Sulman Prize.
Bell won the $50,000 Kilgour Prize sponsored by Newcastle Art Gallery in 2020, and has been an honoured resident artist in France and Thailand.
While admitting he has no idea where many of his sold works have ended up, Bell's called in some works from private collectors for this show.
His friend, the writer Mark Mordue, was an early fan of his work.
"Mark used to be editor of the student university paper when I was at art school, so I did some things with him," Bell says. "He's a good friend. He's one of the first people to buy a painting off me, and he still has it. He's been in so many different crazy share houses in Surry Hills, and he still kept this painting that's been through hell and back.
"He still has it, and it still hangs in his lounge, or every lounge room he goes to, he still hangs it up."
Bell's studio has a bit of everything, in terms of Bell's own artwork. There are ceramics (made during a period when he worked closely with ceramic artist Sean Nicholson), some sculptures, and lots of paintings.
"I do keep things that I really, really like," Bell says. "Just as reference points for me for working on other things. There are a few things I don't let go, that I'm lending for the exhibition, I'll bring back home. They are not for sale."
One of the works hanging in his studio depicts his studio, without a figure in it. He was driven to paint interiors during COVID lockdown - one of those works won him the 2020 Kilgour Prize.
His work is a reflection of his life story. He calls them "touchstones from different times of my life".
"And that's what a lot of the work is. Nothing is made up. The petting zoo - we took our granddaughter to the petting zoo. Seeing little children holding the animals to teach them about being nurturing and caring, and gentle. So that's a real thing.
"And the dog beach is a real thing."
Bell's own visits to Horseshoe (Dog) Beach with his dogs sparked his interest in the location. It was his poodle Chico that did it. "He was obsessed with Dog Beach," Bell told me in an interview years ago. "Coming down from Nobbys, past the Sea Scouts hall, he would go off. He would like meeting the other dogs as well, the interaction, racing in a gang, running up and down barking. It's another reason I like it, the chaos."
Standing in his studio, he states what has become obvious about his work: "They are pretty autobiographical about things I've seen or been involved with."
Bell experimented with painting in a Realist style for his "fountain" series, where he painted 99 fountains. "I kept quite a few of those...," he says. "Slowing down and just looking at things more carefully than I had done in the past. I think that's paying off now, even though my stuff is loose and painterly and direct. That slowing down was a good thing for me to do at that time."