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Chester County Press

Artistry in metal

11/14/2017 12:47PM ● By J. Chambless

Artist Jeff Bell outside his studio, with his sculpture, 'Three Moons.'

By John Chambless
Staff Writer

In Jeff Bell's hands, cold and unyielding metal becomes sinuous vines, elegant gates and animal sculptures so realistic they almost seem to move.

“I've been bending metal all my life,” Bell said during an interview at the no-frills workshop near his home on Doe Run Road in Kennett Square. It's been a life path with some interesting detours, but at 63, Bell is a respected member of the surprisingly large club of blacksmiths/artists in Chester County.

Bell said he quit public school in the eighth grade, but credits his next school in Haverford, Mitchell Prep, and his art teacher, Mrs. Raimey, for introducing him to the career he would eventually forge. “She opened the doors for me,” he said. “My last two years there, I was doing seven periods of art each week. I used to paint, I've done watercolor and oils, I've dabbled in clay sculpture,” he said. During high school, he took some body classes and later ran an auto shop in Avondale, where he applied his painting skills to custom detailing and paint jobs. He also learned to forge and hammer metal to create auto body parts.

Eventually growing frustrated with the insurance industry, Bell said he sold the automotive shop business about 32 years ago. “When you get up and you don't want to go to work, and you're self-employed, you have a problem,” he said. Eventually, “through boredom,” he began to work in copper, selling thousands of larger-than-life metal flowers at craft shows throughout the region. “I did big metal sunflowers, and I was making $1,000 a weekend. I probably did 5,000 of them,” he said.

That led to Bell being asked if he could build a gate for a customer. “I said, 'Yeah,'” he recalled. Then some builders started calling. That steered him to what he regards as his best work – designing, creating and installing custom railings and gates in high-end homes under construction. Depending on what the customer or builder wants, Bell's work can go well beyond being a simple railing. He adds climbing vines to the handrails, laces flowers through the rails of a gate, and creates a feeling of motion and life in his installations.

“In homes under construction, the railings usually go in last,” he said of the pacing of his work, which is frequently under the gun for the owner to move in. Pointing out a photo of a railing made to look like tree branches, Bell said, “I try to make everything as close to real as possible. And I've seen guys try to copy me. But I can tell they don't go out and look at nature like I do.”

Bell's stamp is on many well-known places in the region. The 14-foot replacement barn cupolas at Winterthur are his. Along with fellow sculptor Stan Smokler, he created benches for the state park in Yorklyn, Del., using old parts from the NVF factory. He did some of the iron work at the Galer Winery building. The fountain at the Creamery in Kennett Square is a Bell creation. The swan weathervane at the Luther House in Jennersville is his. The sign for the Center for Creative Arts in Yorklyn is his as well. Many of the railings he has done are in private homes and out of sight, but Bell finds satisfaction in them all.

He showed photos on his phone of a steel-clad fireplace he created for a homeowner. “We did a plywood mockup, then made interlocking metal plates and numbered them, then put them together,” he said.

The builders he works with respect his skills, but demand precision, Bell said. “I put in a 52-foot fence for one builder who demands 110 percent quality on his job sites. That fence had to be plumb within an eighth of an inch, over 52 feet. And they measured it.”

As a sidelight to his gates and railings, Bell has created some impressive animal sculptures in metal. “The Delaware Natural History Museum approached me,” he said. “Halsey Spruance is the executive director there, and he's friends with my friend, the artist Stan Smokler. When I was teaching a workhop with Stan, Halsey would stop in and we'd talk. He's seen my work, and I donate a few pieces to the museum each year for their fundraisers. He asked me to do a show.”

Bell exhibited with woodworker John Rush, and ended up making 11 pieces for the show over the course of a year.

One of the works was an eagle's head bust, which eventually required Bell to cut more than 600 feathers and apply them in layers to give the piece a startlingly realistic appearance. To research his artworks, Bell had access to the taxidermied birds in storage at the museum. “They have 65,000 birds,” Bell said. “They've got 135,000 shells. I did a sculpture of a heron. They gave me two drawers of them. I had free rein of the museum. I did a six-foot humpback whale, and then I did an octopus. I really enjoyed doing them.”

Bell's freestanding sculptures of jellyrish on long tendrils have become one of his most distinctive pieces. “I like sound an motion,” he said. “I went through a process of probably a year, trying to come up with something that sounded good. Everything failed. Then I found a company that makes these brass hemispheres. The sound was phenomenal. I've done a couple of hundred of them since as commissions or donations.”

Attached to the gently curved tentacles, the bowls ring when knocking together in the breeze, or from a viewer's touch. “I got the brilliant idea once to do them in stainless steel, but it was the worst-sounding thing,” Bell said. “The brass sounds so much better.”

Bell has several commissions in the works, but work on them was stalled when he suffered a stroke on Sept. 25 while on a job site in north Wilmington. “I was hanging driveway gates, and I started having slurred speech. I thought, 'This isn't good.' I finished hanging the gates, loaded the truck, drove home, had dinner, went to bed, got up the next morning and I couldn't talk.”

After an emergency room visit, Bell now goes to speech therapy once a week and physical therapy twice a week. While he complained of some weakness in his hands – which, if worse, could have ended his career -- “I'm getting better,” he said. “I'm working on getting everything reconnected. But it blindsided me. The hardest part, for me, was telling myself I'm not 40.” Considering how a stroke might have ended up, “I'm the luckiest person in the world,” he said.

Bell now lives in the home where he grew up, with his wife, who is a real estate paralegal. They look after his elderly father in the home near Bell's large workshop.

For two weeks each summer, Bell teaches metal working workshops with Stan Smokler. “The talent around here is endless,” he said of his students and his fellow instructors. “The reward I get from working with people is phenomenal.”

The artistic part of his career came after a decade spent as a driver of Formula Atlantic race cars all over the country, and Bell showed photos of himself behind the wheel of some high-powered – and high-priced – vehicles.

“I've always been a car person,” he said, smiling. “My grandfather told me when I turned 12 he'd build me a micro-midget to start racing. He died when I was 9. But I've been to the U.S. Nationals twice – in Atlanta in 1987 and at Pocono in 1989. Racing was what I wanted to do professinally, but unfortunately in racing, if you have all the equipment in the world and no money, you're not going to go anywhere. I used to race with Tom Cruise, Paul Newman, people like that. I was always top three, top four. But what we spent each year to do 14 races was what most teams spent just on motors. If I'd had a quarter of a million dollars, I probably would have gone on, but I just couldn't justify it. I just sold everything.”

Sitting between his home and his studio is a nod to his gearhead past. It's a 1964 pickup that he has dubbed “Frankentruck,” for its muscled mishmash of parts. “It's an ongoing project,” he said with a smile, starting up the truck, which idled with a throaty rumble.

Bell got the truck after he regretted selling the last restored vehicle he built at the body shop – a Cobra. “A gentleman from Delaware came up and put a big stack of cash in front of me, and like a fool, I sold it. That was 17 years ago,” Bell said. “I've regretted it ever since. It only took me 17 years to get another toy,” he said of the gleaming pickup.

While his custom metalwork is the focus of many high-end homes in the region, Bell said what he'd like to do someday is a large-scale piece of public art. “I would like to do a big piece of public work,” he said. “I want to do some sort of permanent structure that's going to last.”

Until that day, he's happy with the process of dreaming up and forging gates and furniture and fences that rise to the level of fine art. “That's the goal,” he said, smiling. “I want something that's going to stop you in your tracks.”

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