A conversation with John Bell by Rev. Richard S. Kirby, Ph.D.
An approach to the spiritual decors of tomorrow.
1. I am here now with Mr. John Bell a senior member and spiritual director at St. James Episcopal Church, Wichita, Kansas and John has assembled a home here that looks very much like a religious art gallery as I stand with him by a large crucifix that is about close to 2'x4'. I would like to ask you John did you set out with a desire of having a kind of religious art gallery for a home?
No, it just happened more by accident. This particular piece I bought on an island off the coast of Belize which originally was British Honduras and the young woman who painted it her whole shop was full of paintings with religious significance. This one is one I have enjoyed a lot that is the one reason I bought it. Christ definitely looks male and he is very muscular and he is very dark and he looks Jewish.
2. Was this artist fond of portraying people who are very muscular?
Yes, in fact her Adam and Eve and all of them she got into, everyone was very well put together. Better than the average I would say by any means.
3. Would you be able to find her again, I mean could our listeners and readers and viewers find her?
Yes, I think that we could. There is information on the back of the picture with, I hate to say it I have forgotten her name, an address on it.
4. I see that she has chosen to put a number of doves, is it, in the foreground of the picture. Is this representing, what do you think, peace?
Yes, I think so. The doves of peace are flying around Christ's body as he hangs on the cross and she has done a lovely gold halo.
5. That gold is almost like a sun but it is a night scene.
Yes it is but there are stars and the moon and I have had several artists comment on it that regardless of the content they think it is just a really good painting the way she put it all together.
6. John, this place is so holy with all the icons and everything. What do you say to people who said that it looks practically like a church and that a christian home should be just a home?
Well, I think that the Lord is with us if we invite him or not and regardless of what the home is so I find it pleasant it to live in. It may alter some people's conduct at times, including my own, but you know if he isn't part of our daily life I don't think we are doing what we are supposed to be doing.
7. In other words there's a sense in which the home itself can be a source of inspiration.
Yes, I think so. The first time it crossed my mind in that regard was I suppose thirty years ago a couple that I met and became very close to and they were very earthy real people with five children and involved in all the outside world. But they had a little shrine in one of the halls in their house but was used by all members of the family at different times during the day.
8. How did you form the habit, if that's what it is, of collecting beautiful things?
Well, it really started with a trip to Santa Fe. I was in a shop that was art and antiques and there was a Santos, that's over there on the wall, of a monk. He was a deconsecrated Santos and was missing one hand which is the practice when they deconsecrate art out of a church to remove some portion. And I found him very charming and bought him and that kind of got me started and it made me aware that those things were available and so I always just kind of had my eyes open and a lot of them are locally here. Sometimes we have several antique shows here where deals come in from all over the country and bought them on trips. Some of them are new and some of them are old. I try to get a mixture of different styles - like among the icons I have more Russian icons than anything else but that is understandable because the icons were really a product of the Eastern church so there were more of them done in that part of the world. But some of my icons - oh, I have one from Athens, one from Madrid, and a few others that are definitely new; but you know, it has taken research, and not always successfully, to learn more about them. But many times you go into a shop they have been purchased, when they bought out of the state, and they truthfully don't know that much about them. And so, it takes some digging and I have had limited success at that but I am always trying and try to learn more.
9. As we look across the room here we see something that looks like a model galleon - can you tell us a little more about this?
Well, that is a ship I have had since - it was given to me when I was about eight years old by a neighbor of ours. It was one of his possessions and they had no children and they were selling their big house and moving to the country where he raised his polo ponies and they had to dispose of a lot of things because they were having a much smaller home. And I had always admired it and he gave it to me as a model of the Santa Maria, Columbus's ship, and it was old then so exactly how old it is I don't know. It's showing its age, definitely.
10. It's interesting for our readers and listeners as we recall the church is often portrayed as a ship, as a vessel, but around it you have a kind of semi-altar with many candles - three, four or five different sizes. Can you tell me something about where those candles came from, what they mean to you?
Well, the candles again were a collection that grew there. All of them up there on the mantle, which there is probably fifteen or twenty, they are all old. Some of them were used in churches, some of them, I'm sure, were residential usage. I have some more over here in the cabinet, they are very small, that were definitely the ones that children took upstairs with them at night. In the dining room I have some more that are deconsecrated pieces from a church altar.
11. I must say, John, there seems to be a kind of wonderful blend of types of art and furniture. For instance, this green coffee table, I don't even know how to describe it. Could you talk a little bit about it?
Well, what I am using as a coffee table here is actually an Austrian hearth bench. The base is wrought iron and quite attractively done and the top is black and green marble. It is rather narrow for a coffee table. In today's styles, being more or less the width of a bench, but it worked well in here. I didn't really want a huge one.
12. And on it, it fits extremely well, it is a kind of a modernist, almost minimalist, expressionist, I am not quite sure, a sculpture, a metal sculpture on wood of the Madonna and Christchild but it is very minimalist.
Yes, I bought it locally, it's from a Kansas artist, it is a bronze. He is picking it up right now and finding out it is quite heavy. The comments at the time I bought it from the gallery was that he was leaving part of it to the buyer's imagination - was it a Madonna or was it two lovers?
13. In this context anyhow it certainly looks like a Madonna but I am really thinking that almost anybody visiting this house would wonder if in fact it was kind of a movie set for Beautiful Homes and Gardens. Did you deliberately set out to create a home that, as it were, a model for other people, a particular kind of beautiful home?
Well, actually my idea when I started doing this particular house three years ago - I was recently single again so I was only acting to please myself - and some of the furniture and things I have had for a long time, a few are family pieces and some things were new when I moved in here. But I laughingly said that I was creating a men's club look. Hence the red leather and the oriental rugs and that kind of a scheme which I find very comfortable to live in, it is warm, it's inviting.
14. One of the things that impresses me about this home is that there are literally hundreds of art objects here and yet it doesn't really give the impression of being crowded. Is there any particular skill in furnishing and decorating that you would point to in achieving this effect?
Well, I don't know if..I tend to...if you collect a particular thing I think it is more effective if you group them together. Hence all the candlesticks are more or less together. Yes, there is a lot of stuff and the hanging on the walls and the arranging of things does take some skills and sometimes takes more than one crack at it to get it the way I want it.
15. Without a doubt one would have to describe this as an original and almost a prototype in the idea of a Christian home as an art gallery. But sometimes it is not pietistic, for instance as we look at the archway from this room to the dining room we see a kind of a frieze, a sculpture, a family in motion. Could you tell us a little about this?
Yes, this one of my favorite pieces. When I resigned from an organization as their Executive Officer after eighteen years, they gave me a very generous gift certificate for an art gallery. This is a bronze done by a woman who was English but settled in the United States in Santa Fe. She is now dead but it is called Dancing On The Sand and it is a family and there are five members in it and there is a great deal of motion to it. And it is something I have just enjoyed every day when I look at it it has a nice, wonderful light airy happiness to it.
16. And you say this came from Santa Fe?
Yes, I think this was done while she was in Santa Fe. That is where she lived and she died, she worked clear up to her nineties.
17. Yet, in addition to these non-Christian sculpted pieces like that you have many paintings. I mean, for example, could you tell us something about these two pieces here, these landscapes?
Well, these two landscapes, they are antique,and the frames are the originals. They are English pieces that I bought at a very wonderful art show, or antique show, we had been having to raise money for our museum bought them a couple of years ago. They are very typical of early 1800s landscapes in the English manner.
18. So, John, what advice would you give to folks setting out to have kind of a sacred decor in their home?
Well, I think you ought to do a little reading and mine has definitely been a splatter shop(?)of icons and Santos, and silver and crystal. You know, all kinds of things that you might want to specialize in maybe in just one area. But it is one of the things I enjoy the most about it though is I travel quite a bit and it is a wonderful thing to look for when I am traveling as a memento of the countries that I visit.
19. So, John, tell me do you have any particular vision of an architecture or house design that has guided you or would guide you in constructing the Christian home as a kind of home for beautiful things?
Well, my thought, and maybe it is because this is the way a lot of churches, sanctuaries are put together, but the current trend to have higher ceilings and vaulted ceilings I think lends itself well to this. Particularly, if you have any desire to have some of the larger pieces. The painting that we started talking about would be pretty overpowering in a room with an 8' ceiling.
20. Of course, it is a very well known thing that people differ, not only in their sense of what is beautiful but their sense of what is sacred. Do you have a particular conception, or a group of conceptions, of beauty that they have found has guided you as you collected things John?
Oh, I think Richard, that my approach has been pretty eclectic which is typical of my personality. Some of my pieces are quite sophisticated, some of the ivories are beautifully detailed and then others are more to the abstract, some of the old Santos after years and years of exposure to the elements and having pieces taken off of them when they were deconsecrated. You know they have a pretty primitive look to them too and some of the pieces I have, both from Mexico and Indian reservations are definitely primitive. And like one of my favorites I have a St. Frances from an Indian reservation that the bird on his shoulder is a roadrunner and every time I see it I have a chuckle. It showed the native American sense of humor.
21. So, this is something of your thinking about the Beautiful. What about what is sacred. I mean people vary enormously these days as we come through the era of modernism and post-modernism and what is sacred. Opinions vary, for instance, from the idea that every sacred art is blasphemous and idolotrus and so on and the other extreme would have the view that the only thing that is sacred is the portrayal of the Christ-child and figures in the life of Jesus. What is your opinion about what sacred art should be depicting?
Well, I don't know. To me, Jesus and Mary would be the two that would concern me about the sacred, more than some of the Santos. That is not saying the Saints aren't as important, they certainly add to the interest in a collection. But the Madonna and Child and the things that I have Christ by himself are the ones, to me, that are in the sacred category.
22. John, are there any artists of the spiritual and sacred things that you don't collect, haven't collected, that you very much admire, past of present?
Well, there are some. I just recently saw an article in the paper about a piece that is in the local museum here. I haven't been out to see it yet. It has an icon that is, at least from the picture in the paper, looks like it would be very lovely. It is definitely modern, very symbolic, very sophisticated really. It looked like thing that I would have interest in.
23. Do you have a special fondness for any of the great artists from the past like Leonardo or Michaelangelo?
Well, of course, you know they are the big boys in the business. Their things were certainly magnificant and when you have the opportunity to view them in person they are awesome. The art collection of the Vatican is just breathtaking and of course, you would have to go many times over the years if you ever got to see all of it because there is so much they can't put it all on display at once. So you see what's there then you go back another time and try to catch another segment but the pieces are absolutely fantastic. It is a real treat to be able to see them.
24. In your travels in Europe and other places have you seen sacred buildings that you particularly admire ranging from St. Paul's Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, Chatreaux, Lourdes, Rheims Cathedral and this kind of thing?
Oh, yes, and one of the things in London, in particular, always bothers me is that church attendance is down so much that a lot of the lovely old churches are closed. In Prague, one thing that I found refreshing was again a city - you know you can stand in one spot and sometimes see three churches fairly close. They can't afford to keep them all going. But in Prague, many of them are being used for other things such as musical presentations and the tickets that you buy help pay for the restoration of the church and the carvings and the artwork and everything in them is just lovely. In this way, they are being preserved and they seem to have a real respect for them. Most of the artists that are using them are young people and the concerts are very inexpensive, they are designed for people to drop in and drop out, they only last an hour and they take place during the day as well as in the evenings. So, it is a wonderful, very charming, solution to this sort of situation and they hand out these flyers and it will tell where it is and what they are performing and they will say what proceeds are to go to maintaining the building or restoration of the building and some such thing.
25. Are there any examples of contemporary, American, sacred, or ecclesiastical architecture in any part of the country that you feel drawn to or really admire?
Well, I can't say, Richard, that I have done any particular study on it but I have certainly seen some. There are some pieces here in Wichita that several of the Catholic churches, Roman churches, have some rather contemporary things that are very lovely, a lot of them were done by artisans from Italy. A lot of the good work still comes out of Italy. There is also a methodist church here that is so full of symbolism it is unbelievable and the architect did a beautiful job in everything from the altar to the pulpit, to the stained glass. All symbolism and it is all very contemporary and it's quite lovely, really.
26. This building that we are going past is, in fact, the Catholic cathedral.
Yes, that's right. That is St. Mary's. It is an interesting story - the church bought the ground and those lovely marble pillars were shipped here from Italy and they were out of money and the pillars laid on the ground for several with weeds growing around them. And the Bishop at the time was in a poker club and one of the members of the poker club was the Potentiate of the Shrine and one night the Potentiate said to the Bishop "when in the hell are we going to clean up that corner lot, it looks bad?" He said "well, we are having trouble, we are out of money, and we don't know where to go and get any." So the Potentiate said "I know how to do it". And the Shrine loaned them the money to start construction on the cathedral.
27. Well, John, the population of the world is going up, not down, and the number of artists in the world is going up, not down, and the people looking for new fields of art to conquer and new arenas for sacred art. If you were in the business of being a patron of sacred or spiritual artists what kind of things would you want to commission if you had bottomless pockets?
Oh my, you make me think, don't you. Well, there is a lot of repetition, of course, in liturgical art. I mean, if nothing else, we have to accept that Christ was with us such a short period of time, really. But it was all originally designed as a teaching tool for people who didn't read or write and I think that that is, even though we mostly read and write now, I think it is a very effective teaching tool. And I think the stories can still be depicted that way and be very effective with adults as well as children and it is a very pleasant way to teach.
28. So there is the Society of Decorative Painters?
Well, the decorative painters, which, of course, a lot of it is decorative painting. I don't know the exact process they went through but they made this their national headquarters. We are in an area that we call the Museum Area - Wichita Museum, the Indian Museum, Cowtown which is many of the original buildings in Wichita were moved there and restored. And the new exploration place, which is a Science Museum for the children and the adults seem to like it a lot too, so this is kind of a neat area to come to. Our Botanica, our garden areas are also in this area as well as a golf course, a tennis complex and a few other things that are fun.
29. We are now coming up to Exploration Place.
Exploration Place. It was designed, it runs out into the river and downtown Wichita, the little and the big Arkansas rivers meet and the building runs out into the rivers. It is rather a spectacular, rather modern, sleek, sophisticated building.
30. I know. But in the Plaza here the glass walls have musical instruments engraved on them.
Yes. I can't answer the particular significance to that at this point but the Museum has been open just a year and the crowds are far higher than they ever anticipated. Right over here the large Indian sculpture, which is called The Keeper of the Plains, is where the two rivers meet. That is the confluence of the big and the little Arkansas rivers. The Indians camped here and, of course, the Wichita Indians, because they felt, but I am afraid they were not right, that a tornado would never hit at the confluence of the two rivers....That is a headdress that he has and the hands are praying.....It was designed by an Indian artist that is now dead, was local and was known nationally - his name was Blackbear Bosun. I forgot to show you. I have one of his paintings in my home, it is one of my favorite things. A lot of his stuff got to the place, I couldn't afford it. He kind of got into the kind of surrealist type things in later years, kind of like Salvador Dali, but with Indian influence. Some most interesting things all involve the Indian spirits and all that sort of thing and he was a wonderful, charming man and he has added a lot of interest to our city.
31. So the Exploration Place, which we are leaving behind, is primarily a Science Museum would you say?..(yes)....So are there any museums of art, or modern art, or any kind of art really, large museums in Wichita?
Yes. Besides Wichita Museum, just behind us in that general area, there is on the east side of town the Wichita Center for the Arts - it is quite a combination. There is a theatre - there they do theatre productions, they do foreign films, they have an art gallery, they have a school where they teach pottery and painting and cloisineau and a little bit of everything. It's a center for the arts, it's all different kinds of art things. We have three universities here in town - the Wichita State University - the Museum at Wichita State has a very fine collection and is always doing new and interesting things. So, there is quite a little bit to do as far as art galleries are concerned.
32. Well, as we move towards closing this interview I want to tell our listeners and readers that as we move towards having a specific spiritual artists group or federation, academy here in Wichita. I am thinking that the way to launch it would be to gather a core group that would begin, perhaps a day trip, with a tour of John Bell's house. We should really give the house a name - does your house have a name, John...(no, I haven't done that yet).......Okay, well we are going to make some suggestions about that. But we will gather some people. I am thinking that maybe this is a symbolic act to gather representatives of the major artistic disciplines and media, such as a painter, architect, sculptor, and so on. And we will begin with a tour, a prayer, worship perhaps, perhaps even a eucharist, a gathering in John's house, and then perhaps we would hire some kind of bus. Then we would take a day tour of these art galleries and would record our impressions and think about the role of the arts in the life of the city. And maybe include some churches in this and think about the role of spiritual education formation and systematic spirituality in the life of the artist. And then, I think we would return to John's house, perhaps for a catered meal or even a communion meal and would create a code of ethics for spiritual artists and would install John as a kind of figurehead, kind of a patron, a leader just as he has been the President of the Wichita Symphony Orchestra. What do you think of this vision, John?
Sounds very exciting. Me, Richard, I'm game for whatever we cook up.
33. So, John, actually I'm quite curious about the jewelery you have on. Would you like to tell us some story about your rings, the bracelet, and so on?
Well, I'm one of those guys who likes jewelery and actually for years I did the male thing. I had a ring. Then my wife, at that time, who I had outfitted extensively in jewelry and now she had all of that (I believe the word was "shit" as I remember) she wanted. Well, then I decided that if she had all she wanted, I would buy what I wanted so I have quite a collection. Some of it antique, and some of it isn't, and I enjoy it.
34. What are these rings that you are wearing now, for instance?
Well, the one on this hand is a crest, originally the top of it originally in the days of tie-tacs was a tie-tac and it was entirely too big to be practical. It is the crest of Mexico City and I led a trip delegation to Mexico City and what we would call Mayor of the city they call him Governor.
John Bell, thank you very much for this interview. I hope it will open people's minds to ways they can make their homes into truly sacred places as well as having churches and architectural locations designated as sacred. This will be an important part of bringing spirituality into domesticity. So, we thank you for pointing the way to "the spiritual homes of the future." Let us hope it starts a new trend in beautiful homes and gardens.
Copyright 2001 by WNRF.