Julie Bell paints animal images alive with the rhythms of the natural world
By Norman Kolpas
This story was featured in the November 2017 issue of Southwest Art magazine. Get the Southwest Art November 2017 print issue or digital download now–then subscribe to Southwest Art and never miss another story.
“Tell me your goal in life!”
Having just talked to her students about the concept of having a dream you strive to achieve, the fifth-grade teacher at Sallie Curtis Elementary School in Beaumont, TX, glanced around the classroom. Her gaze settled on Julie Bell.
“I have no idea,” said the girl.
The teacher pressed Julie for an answer. “You have to have a goal,” she said. Julie thought about the pictures she enjoyed creating for family and friends. She’d begun to draw at the age of 5 or 6 after chancing upon a small, realistic line drawing of a flower on a piece of paper left in a library book.
“I’ll be an artist,” Julie finally declared to her teacher and classmates.
That grade-school declaration may have sealed the deal on Bell’s future. “More and more,” she says, “I became the person people would go to for art.” Such “tiny things sparked a cascade of other events” that gradually resulted in her reputation today, at the age of 59, as a widely respected animal
artist—not to mention an acclaimed illustrator and painter in the realm of
Looking back, it’s easy to discern the stepping-stones that led to the career and life Bell now enjoys at her suburban home and studio bordered by woodlands in eastern Pennsylvania. But her first three decades might otherwise seem to have been a meandering path toward that goal she first declared in the fifth grade.
She grew up the second of four children born to Sydney and Milton Bell. Her father, now 87 years old, only recently retired from a successful career as an architect. Her late mother, says Bell, was also “extremely artistic and creative,” the sort of person who, when doing projects around the house or helping her children with school assignments, “could produce magic out of her hands at any moment.”
When she was 12, her parents divorced, and her mother whisked the children off to Atlanta. Thus began a peripatetic life for Julie, her older brother, and two younger sisters. “We moved at least once a year, and I attended five different high schools,” she says. Determined to finish her diploma as quickly as possible, Bell took on a heavy academic load that didn’t allow for any art studies. Yet art remained a constant for her. Her natural talent always noticed, she was asked to create run-through banners for football games, posters for events, cartoons for school newspapers, even a portrait to honor a teacher. Outside of school, she and her friends—all fans of MAD magazine—drew and tried to sell their own off-kilter comic books. “It was satirical and hilarious stuff,” says Bell, tongue firmly in cheek.
Only in her senior year, just 15 years old and already having accumulated more than enough credits to graduate, did Bell relax a bit and enroll in an art class. Fortunately, it was a good one. “I found it amazing, awesome,” she says, “to have a teacher talk to me about art and set up things to draw.” The experience, she adds, felt like “the food I’d been looking for.”
Thus nourished, Bell decided to pursue art in college. But her studies again proved to be peripatetic. She met and married Donald Palumbo, an academic and author specializing in the literary analysis of science fiction. They married in 1978, and as he took up different academic positions, so, too, did Bell’s studies move from Texas to Michigan, Ohio to Pennsylvania. “I never finished a degree course,” she adds with a laugh, “and I did not have a traditional art-school education. But I had a fantastic one.” She and Palumbo had two sons, Anthony and David, both of whom grew up to become artists in their own right.
During that 11-year-long marriage, Bell painted mostly as a pastime. She also illustrated a few children’s books written and self-published by an acquaintance. More and more, however, she began pursuing a new passion for bodybuilding. Starting simply by working out with a set of weights her husband had bought, she eventually began competing at the national level.
After five years, worried about the performance-enhancing drugs used by some competitors in the sport’s highest echelons, she decided not to pursue bodybuilding any further. But in 1989 in New Jersey, as her marriage was drawing to a close, the last competition she attended and won turned out to be far more important for her in another way. Its promoter suggested to a friend, master fantasy illustrator Boris Vallejo, that he work with Bell as a model.
Bell’s first visit to Vallejo’s Pennsylvania studio still strikes her—some 18 years later—as magical and fateful. “It was one of those meetings of twin souls,” she says. “You feel like the whole universe is making this happen.”
In their early meetings, she and Vallejo talked about art, and she watched him at work. “Ideas clicked for me,” she says of those first moments of revelation. Inspired by those conversations and observations, she painted portraits of her sons, then 6 and 8 years old, and brought them to Vallejo to critique. “He said to me, ‘Oh! You’re someone to be taken seriously as an artist.’” A year later, her skills flourishing, Bell completed a hyperrealistic painting of a woman riding a gleaming metallic shark, which Heavy Metal magazine bought for its January 1992 cover, announcing to the fantasy world the arrival of a prodigious new talent. By then, Bell and Vallejo were constant companions. They married in 1994.
Meanwhile, Bell continued to solidify her fantasy-art reputation. “One thing builds on the other,” she observes. Marvel commissioned her to paint covers of special issues for such iconic characters as Conan the Barbarian and Iron Man, and she went on to execute paintings for trading cards featuring Iron Man, Silver Surfer, Colossus, and others. She illustrated video-game covers, too, and even an album cover for the singer-songwriter Meat Loaf. She and Vallejo began a collaboration on a now-revered fantasy wall calendar they still produce annually. Together, the couple collaborates on advertising assignments for major movie studios and brands including Ford, Toyota, MTV, and Nike.
One fantasy assignment in particular became a major turning point in Bell’s career. Tor Books, a respected publisher of fantasy and science fiction titles, asked her to illustrate the jacket of Through Wolf’s Eyes, the first title in the Firekeeper Saga by Jane Lindskold, a tale of a girl’s relationship with a pack of magical wolves. The book was successful, and Bell was asked to continue illustrating the series.
For reference, Vallejo urged her to observe wolves firsthand, so in 2002 they visited the nearby Lakota Wolf Preserve in Columbia, NJ. “They were so big and so gorgeous,” she recalls, “and the experience opened up my mind to thinking that I had to do a painting of the wolves just for myself because I was in love with them. And the more I did that, the more I wanted to do it. The wolves took over.”
Since that time, Bell has spent a significant portion of her working time painting not just wild canids but also other animals she loves. Regardless of the subject, she devotedly observes her subjects from life. “I go behind the scenes at lots of horse shows,” she says. “I’ve made friends with the people at the small zoo 20 minutes from our house, who take me out on a truck to where the bison are,” she adds. And all she has to do is stroll from the studio she shares with Vallejo to the woods near their home to see deer and foxes, which she also loves to paint.
Regardless of the animal, Bell strives always “to show them as completely part of their own world, doing their own thing.” The goal, she says, is to portray moments akin to the sacra conversazioni of Italian Renaissance paintings, in which the Virgin Mary and infant Jesus are surrounded by saints talking with each other in casual, natural poses that invite the viewer into the scene. And unlike her hyperrealistic fantasy works, the compositions in her oil paintings of animals—impeccably observed and rendered though they are—possess natural, almost organic rhythms and patterns that “make it feel like real life.” No wonder her animal works have, from the start, earned recognition from top shows, including the Society of Animal Artists annual exhibition and the annual Art Renewal Center Salon.
Regardless of such recognition, Bell sums up of every subject she portrays, “It’s really important to me that I feel love for it. Otherwise, it’s not going to be the real thing, and I’m wasting my time.” Words spoken by a woman who, very clearly, knows her life’s goal.
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