A delicious aroma fills the air as onions and peppers sizzle on the grill at Richard Bell’s Los Angeles loft. The loft doubles as Bell’s studio and its walls feature his work. Bell motions for me to follow him, saying, “Let’s talk on the patio and we can watch the sunset.” It’s a warm fall evening, and the beautiful colors of the sunset bounce off the downtown buildings. He continues, “There’s a ton of art downtown and
I love it. It’s like a renaissance going on.”
Looking around at the convergence of nature and concrete, modern architecture and scrawled graffiti, I can’t help thinking he’s right. Seeing the emotion on his face, I ask him what his greatest passion is. “Food, art, and Formula One,” he says with a grin.
As the sun dips behind a building, I compliment him on the enticing smells wafting our way. His blue eyes sparkle as he turns to me. “Art and food go hand in hand. If you want a really good meal, eat at an artist’s house. The food will be delicious, I promise you!”
Finding His Way
Bell grew up in Los Angeles as a rambunctious kid who was always in trouble. “I never gave much thought to what I wanted to be when I grew up,” he says. “I liked to play sports all the time and was very athletic, but never thought of having a sports career.” A future as an artist was even farther off his radar. “As a kid I didn’t really draw at all. I did some doodling and graffiti with some friends, but nothing much.”
With urging from his parents to become a doctor, Bell enrolled pre-med at Loma Linda University. While there he met his future wife, Ema, who was also pre-med. Despite finding the woman of his dreams while he was in school, he questioned his medical career. “I just couldn’t justify the cost of med school. I remember being in the cafeteria looking at classifieds for all these jobs for IT and the pay was great. I was like, ‘I can do that.’” Bell dropped out of school and enrolled in programming courses. “Before I knew it, I was working for Rockwell International at Southern California Edison, then for the U.S. Government, and after that I went into the private sector,” he says.
Ironically, it was his IT work that led Bell to discover his artistic passion. The job required a lot of travel, so to pass the time he got in the habit of carrying a sketchpad with him and started doing charcoals. As he recollects, “I never considered it as a career though, maybe something to do later in life.” Finally, he summoned the courage to show his drawings to his great-uncle Raymond Howell, a famous artist in Oakland, California. Bell vividly remembers Howell’s reaction. “My uncle said, ‘Oh my! You can paint!’ And I was like, ‘I never painted in my life!’”
The realization brought the two even closer together. “We did a lot of talking and painting and eating, and I learned a lot about art and food,” says Bell.
“I hoped that maybe I inherited the art gene that seems to run in our family.”
In 2002 Bell’s career path took one more unexpected turn when he rolled his convertible and broke his neck at C5-6. He spent three months on life support. “I had a near death experience and I saw a lot of colors,” he says. The experience would later inspire one of Bell’s few abstract paintings, titled Reconciled, but at first his “new life” did not include art. “After my injury, I didn’t have much use of my arms. I would try to sketch with charcoal, but I was pretty apathetic about it,” he recalls.
For Bell, the best part of rehab was the camaraderie at Rancho Los Amigos National Rehabilitation Center. “My main passion is connecting with other people, so I liked talking and hanging out with different people. We used to do drag racing in the halls, which was fun. I did three months at Rancho and then a whole new life began.”
It was not long before Carlos Benavides, a friend of Bell’s, invited him to an art show at Rancho. “I thought, ‘I don’t want to see a bunch of disabled people trying to do art.’” he says. “But when I got there, they blew my mind. The art was incredible. The show was incredible.”
Benavides encouraged Bell to participate in the show the next year. That set him on a path to his future career as a successful artist, but it did not come easily. “I started with small sketches at first, and the more I did, the stronger my arms got,” says Bell. “I tried painting and before I knew it, I had enough material for the show. Thinking back, I’m not satisfied with what I did that first year, but it was a good start and it was great therapy. I figured out that I could do the same kind of art I did before and even improve on it. So, I immersed myself into it. I worked and worked and worked to better my technique.”
He is always looking for inspiration, and is committed to improving his technique. He is as likely to draw inspiration from fellow Los Angeles artists as he is from a trip to the museum to study the masters. The tools of his trade are varied and constantly changing depending on his inspiration. He started out using oil, but has expanded his repertoire to include acrylics, charcoal, pastels and more. “I might use all of them on one painting” he says. “It just depends. I also like to mix all my colors. I have a pallet of seven colors that I use to make almost any color.”
Prior to his injury, Bell trained as a jazz pianist, an experience that manifests in both the subject and style-blending aspects of work. “My art is probably more impressionistic, and surrealist a little bit, and I dabble in realism,” he explains. “For example, in my music series I’ll have the artist as realistic as I can, but then I will add a ghost image of the musician performing, so that it’s a bit more abstract and it gives you more of an idea of what they’re feeling.”
Bell primarily paints portraits and wants to illustrate the human experience. “A lot of people have asked why I don’t paint people smiling. It’s because I’m trying to paint what that person might be feeling or going through, so that it’s more relatable. I don’t want to paint the traditional portrait look where it is fake and contrived. I am trying to convey some kind of experience.”
Despite Ema managing all of his business affairs and setting up his shows (and being his wife for 22 years), Bell has only done one painting of her. Ema confesses that it’s because she can’t sit still and is too self-critical. Bell agrees and points out that special Ema painting which hangs in their home and is not for sale.
Bell also has done a self-portrait titled Rage. In it, his face is distorted in agony. When asked what he was so outraged about he said, “Nothing; I just thought it was a funny face.” We all laugh as Ema adds, “Richard is hilarious and can make anyone laugh, but what people don’t realize is that he’s also very spiritual and extremely intelligent.”
When Bell first heard about the Beverly Hills artSHOW, which runs twice a year, he wasn’t sure he was ready for such a prestigious show. “It’s a juried show, so what happens is you have to submit eight pieces and then they have a blind jury review your work and determine if you’re worthy to be in the show.” Bell got in the first time he applied. Since then he’s been selected for two more of their shows. He smiles, “The third time I did that show I actually won a third-place ribbon for best paintings!”
Bell is currently working on a commission and getting ready for his next group of paintings that he will enter into the Spring 2018 Beverly Hills artSHOW. As he explains, “Most of the work is done before I touch the canvas. I just start thinking about an entire series and then when I get the time to do it I try to knock it out.” Over the last several years Bell has completed hundreds of paintings, approximately 60 of which are for sale as of this interview.
Recently, Bell displayed his work at Art and Chocolate, a show where sweets and paintings are equally admired. “Art is subjective and can mean so many different things to different people that you have to appreciate the work that speaks to you.” In such environments, artists of all kinds are often pushed to new boundaries of their art. “I did a live painting during that show.” He mischievously adds, “And hey, dessert’s a food too!”
This past year, the California Rehabilitation Institute converted its first floor into a gallery, which will be open to the public next year to showcase the work of artists with all sorts of disabilities. Eighteen of Bell’s paintings have been chosen to be displayed on rotation, with five of them on display at all times in the main gallery. “It is a tremendous honor,” he says of their patronage. Until then, his work can be seen at rbellart.com.
As we wrap up a lovely evening of food and art, Bell tells me about an upcoming 17-day worldwide trip that will take them to Italy, Greece, and Abu Dhabi. This trip is a lifelong dream come true. With a big grin, he explains, “I’ve always wanted to attend a Formula One race, and Abu Dhabi is hosting the last race of the season. I can’t wait to be there!”
Bell’s passion for enjoying the rich treasures that life has to offer and his drive to live life to the fullest can be seen firsthand in his work, as well as in the way he lives his life every day. Like many artists, Bell is daring and complicated, but where those less fearless might hesitate, Bell only picks up speed, letting nothing slow him down along the way.
A Formula One fan to the core, our sensational evening ends as he offers one last note: “My life’s motto is to keep chugging along. No brakes!” Bell’s trip around the racetrack of life has had some tight turns, but thankfully for art lovers he keeps moving forward at full speed, successfully crossing the finish line of the next painting … and the next adventure.
A Passion for Giving Back
by Ian Ruder
Richard Bell may not have mentioned giving back to the SCI community as one of his greatest passions, but his track record of involvement shows it is a vital part of his life. In 2009, Bell and friend Ray Pizarro, also a quadriplegic, created an online forum to connect and support the Southern California SCI community. “Our whole focus was trying to get people back into doing things they used to do and being productive in their lives after injury,” says Bell.
They named their venture Pushrim Foundation and started off with a simple website where wheelers could share their experiences, ask questions and post pictures and videos. In the years since, the organization has grown to over 2,000 members, launched programs to support the community and gained 501(c)3 status. One of Pushrim’s most visible ventures has been its long-running video podcast series, which Bell cohosts with Pizarro.
The two friends took advantage of the rise of YouTube and the growing affordability of video production to launch the series in 2012. “We started in Ray’s apartment,” says Bell. “We tried to make it look as professional as we could.” They relied on donations and their own checkbooks to fund the show.
Over the years they’ve put together almost 60 episodes, covering everything from medical issues, to technology to interviews with a multitude of SCI celebrities. “Because of the site, we were privy to a lot of people with interesting stories and we used those connections to try to get those people to come on and tell their stories,” says Bell. Pressed to pick a favorite guest, Bell chose actor and musician Tobias Forrest, but laughed as he added that his true favorites were “the one that were easy to interview.”
While Bell and Pizarro set out to create resources for the community, Bell acknowledges the program has had a huge impact on how he lives his life. As an example, he cited an episode where they test drove a Spinergy ZX-1. “I ended up getting that one and that has totally changed my life,” he says. “We didn’t put anything out that we wouldn’t use or that we didn’t think was beneficial to our community.”
Bell says the Pushrim video casts may be coming to an end, but he is looking to continue with “something similar, but a little more creative.” In the meantime, the video archives are available on YouTube at youtube.com/user/clubpushrim/videos. Find out more about Pushrim at pushrim.org.