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Jenny Bell

Drawing and its focus on line and form are a constant throughout Jenny Bell’s artistic journey. As a regenerative farmer and artist, Bell’s reductive line and, more recently, use of bold primary colour mark a transformative breakthrough in her practice articulating her holistic embrace of the land we live in and on.

“I have lived on or in proximity to Ngunnawal country most of my life, but I know that I will never have the detailed knowledge born of a culture that has lived in communion with land in the way our first custodians did. It is with this awareness that I acknowledge elders past, present and emerging on Ngunnawal country.” Jenny Bell.

At Gina Mobayed’s urging, Jenny Bell and I met over strong coffee and Philip Hodgins’ poetry, in her studio at “Bohara,” the Bell-Edwards’ family property near Breadalbane on the New South Wales southern tablelands. Hodgins’ invocation in his poem Getting through a strained fence, 1991, begins, “Approach it as you would a work of art,” a prescient introduction. This prosaic homily to the proverbial is a meditation on transition, a theme that emerges in artist/regenerative farmer Jenny Bell’s life and practice.

Born and raised on a farm on the Breadalbane Plains, she studied drawing and painting at Goulburn TAFE and then trained at East Sydney Technical College (now the National Art School) and later Sydney College of the Arts, gaining her art qualifications. Bell headed for Europe and worked in London, until a sudden return home brought an awakening, “If I’m going to make a go of it as an artist, I’ll have to do it here. The jolt pushed me to turn my eye to the landscape I’d grown up in.”

The necessity of drawing underpins all her work, with its attendant close observation. Raising a young family and attending to farming duties presented challenges: “I learned that grabbing snatches of time accumulated and often allowed me to lift out of myself and enter a state of total concentration very quickly. Anyone who knows a baby might wake up at any moment also knows how much you can get done before they do! So, I often drew in a feverish haste before the cow moved or the tractor disappeared.”

Bell also works in oils on canvas and creates assemblages and installations. Recently her reductive line has become more graphic and her use of bold primary colours has marked a transformative breakthrough in her practice. Her engagement with Earth Canvas (a project that linked artists with regenerative farmers) and other sustainable land-management symposia has thrust her need to articulate publicly the profound shift in understanding of our relationship with country. The major work Lifeblood, 2019, and her recently commissioned works, speak of this broader cultural and environmental engagement.

“When Gill Sanbrook (Chair of Earth Canvas) contacted me about joining the project, I sensed a rare opportunity. I was nervous of the exposure at the early stages and felt tremendous anxiety at our first Earth Canvas meeting, but I sensed a glint of possibility when Anna Coughlan (regenerative farmer and owner of Mt Narra Narra property) and I made a bond over Brancusi’s statement ‘simplicity is complexity resolved.’ Something slowly began to open for me.”

Although she participated in Earth Canvas as an artist, Bell is herself a regenerative farmer and brought that unique perspective and understanding to her work and to the whole project.

“Until this challenge I had worked directly in front of my subject with a confidence built on a lifelong connection to a particular place. Memory, familiarity, and touch were layers built into the work. There was much I recognised at Mt Narra Narra but I was all at sea in a landscape that I had only passed through, so I had to find a hook that would let me in, gradually coming to realise that this new challenge needed new tools. Lifeblood emerged from my inner world, inside my studio. Once I had reconciled that the magic of Mt Narra Narra for me was not the seen but the unseen, it became clear that I was being offered a chance to reassess and regenerate. It took me back to the excitement I had felt when I made my first tentative steps with paint as an art student.

So, when I discussed making a banner for the organisation Soils for Life and then the Bee banners for the Carbon Farmers of Australia conference, I was ready. I had found a language. I was inspired by the purpose and attempt to communicate with an audience not expecting art to be relevant to their cause and I revelled in playing with colour and form, using my decades of drawing outside to help conjure the images but then allowing the language of paint to give the works a buzz.”

We’re in the studio and Bell is preparing for her forthcoming exhibition Life Forms at Goulburn Regional Art Gallery. I asked her about these bright new works emerging from her recent drawings and what the future holds for her.

“With regard to my exhibition Life Forms, the team at Goulburn Regional Art Gallery offered me the opportunity to use the Workshop Space to create a new work which excited me. I set about thinking how to take hold of this room. Then the moment a moth fluttered on my studio floor, I was provoked to ask: where does the impulse to begin a new body of work begin? I began drawing the moth, marvelling at the artistry that had created her. I soon realised that I could use it to leap into unknown creative territory. I searched out other moths and slowly the pencil, the paint and the saw showed me the way so that, just as a moth transitions from an egg to pupa, and then from cocoon to adult, mine made their way from a drawing to an idea, through a kind of darkness to then reveal themselves as Buttermoths.”

The final stanza of Hodgins’ poem, Getting through a strained fence seems particularly pertinent to Bell as we discuss her next phase,

From that moment you’re on the other side.
A whole new paddock opens up its realms
of greener grass, the prospect overwhelms
you with its possibilities, and while
you fold your arms and try to reconcile
the future with the past, the present fence
still stands behind you making perfect sense.

“After three decades immersed in the challenges, changes and rhythms on “Bohara,” my attention has turned to “Worners,” a paddock I have loved since childhood and given to me by my father. As Riley and perhaps Ella take on more responsibility at “Bohara,” a window has opened for me to direct my energies more fully on this thirty hectare block. I am building a new studio and small dwelling there, hoping that over the next few years it will give me a separate space to think beyond my present horizon. I can see that the experience I have accumulated could be shared, and that this small farm could be used to educate and inspire others, but just how that will work I do not know. Having walked the paddock for so many years and not having noticed a scar tree until it was pointed out to me by a young Indigenous woman, I have a lot to learn too! To have a separate space will give me a powerful opportunity.

The old idea of farming – that we apply a formula which we endeavour to control, and that the outcome is predictable – is challenged by an ‘emergent mind’ which is always open to new learning, responding to signals, and knows it will never fully understand or be in control. This applies whether it be drawing or a farm, and is exciting beyond words to me.”

This article was originally published in Artist Profile, Issue 63

EXHIBITION
Lifeforms
10 August – 27 August, 2023 
Australian Galleries, Sydney

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