Five Arkansas artists you should know 

They all have stories to tell.

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click to enlarge Guy Bell "Back Over the Tracks" image
  • Guy Bell "Back Over the Tracks"

Guy Bell

Guy Bell, 34, is a mostly self-taught artist who always enjoyed drawing and painting — T-shirts in high school and political cartoons at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. He began to get serious, however, when someone put a gun to his head — literally — several years ago. It was a home invasion, a case of mistaken identity. One of the intruders aimed at Bell's head and pulled the trigger. "The gun didn't go off," Bell said. "It was a turning point" in his career as an artist. "Over the next year I got my act together." His first painting after the experience was an oil he calls "Solitude," depicting a man walking away from a chair and a nearby skull and into the horizon. Bell has worked for a wine distributer and for UPS and other odd jobs; but he quit all that about a month ago to devote his time to painting. His formal training is limited to a couple of classes he took from neo-Renaissance artist Stephen Cefalo on mixing paint. Much of his work is what he calls "idealized landscapes" —not actually of real places — in which a bit of the always man-made intrudes, usually in the form of cell towers or other towers affixed with blinking lights — commenting on the loss of untouched nature. Not all of his work is narrative — though his dogs in the back of pickup trucks, the motion indicated by the dog's flying ears, are a scene from our Arkansas story. And some of his narratives are hidden: He writes words into the underpainted layers, words he said he'd "better not" reveal. We'll leave that to future restoration workers.

click to enlarge SERIOUS: An incident he survived was a 'turning point' for Little Rock painter Guy Bell image.
  • Brian Chilson
  • SERIOUS: An incident he survived was a 'turning point' for Guy Bell.

"Mostly I like showing a moment in dreams ... the place between conscious and unconscious" where the impossible and the real coexist. He is a talented colorist, his skies pink and blue and orange, and he sees in his work an element of abstraction (a good example: "Hillside Vineyard," in which a pink and aqua sky is separated from deep blue-green red fields below by a garish complementary horizon of orange and blue — a Rothko-like division of the picture plane into three).

Bell got a berth at Greg Thompson Fine Art by approaching painter William Dunlap after a talk Dunlap, also represented by Thompson, gave at the Arts Center. Bell showed Dunlap pictures of his work on his cell phone. Did the trick.

click to enlarge "DELTA ORACLE": Neal Harrington's work in the 2014 Delta Exhibition image
  • "DELTA ORACLE": Neal Harrington's work in the 2014 Delta Exhibition.

Neal Harrington

Neal Harrington, 40, and his wife, Tammy, "like a couple of geniuses," he said, got the same graduate degrees — in art, from Wichita State University in Kansas — but lucked out. Neither had to give up art to maintain the marriage: Arkansas colleges had a place for both. He's at Arkansas Tech and she's at University of the Ozarks. Neal Harrington is a printmaker, using both linoleum and woodcuts, and his style is exaggerated and linear, jumping off from graphic art into fine art. As an undergraduate, he wanted to do cartoons, which he said was a "dirty word" when he went to college. "It was kind of a scarlet letter." You can still see influences of R Crumb in his narrative series, such as his "Hard Working Man" and "Bootlegger Series." If you went to the 2013 Delta Exhibition at the Arkansas Arts Center, you saw a work from the Bootlegger series, "Snake Shaker's Shack," and two of what he calls his "giant naked ladies." ("The Abduction of Europa" is 89 by 48 inches. Like Delita Martin, Harrington has to improvise to work big: He created a 400-pound drum by pouring seven bags of Quikcrete into a cardboard tube used for footings. He rolls his prints out on his basement floor.)

click to enlarge SELF-PORTRAIT: Of Neal Harrington image
  • SELF-PORTRAIT: Of Neal Harrington.

When you go to the 2014 Delta, you'll see another Harrington, the 32-by-24-inch woodcut and India ink wash "Delta Oracle." The oracle is a nude woman rising from a fiery still; the bootlegger has been knocked back by the vision. Nudes, stunned men — is this what Warren Criswell's work would look like if he took to making woodcuts? "He's a hero of mine," Harrington said, if not a muse, and Harrington said he's careful not to look at his stuff, which he described as "a lot of ladies doing supernatural" things. (Harrington and Criswell are friends and fellow members of the Arkansas Printmaking Society.) Harrington's work can be played to music — American roots, Preservation Hall jazz, bluegrass, murder ballads. "I want to bring this visually to people," Harrington said, by portraying "the human condition — just being alive, the love and hate in those songs, jealousy, drinking, fornicatin' — I want my art to be a visual representation of the music."

Cantrell Gallery represents Harrington.

click to enlarge "CURE": Dimensional figures combine with flat space in Grace Mikell Ramsey's work image
  • "CURE": Dimensional figures combine with flat space in Grace Mikell Ramsey's work.

Grace Mikell Ramsey

As a 29-year-old who has not exhibited in Arkansas before, Grace Ramsey might be called an "emerging" artist, except for the fact that she has emerged elsewhere, in Louisiana, where she got her MFA from Tulane University, and Alabama, where she has also exhibited. She was one of 15 national artists in 2012 to receive the Joan Mitchell Foundation MFA Grant Award of $15,000. Ramsey moved to Arkansas in 2012 with her husband, David (who writes for the Arkansas Times); she now teaches at the Arkansas Arts Center. Her work — flat, hard-edged and edgy — employs a highly symbolic, fantasy narrative for the viewers to work out. Raised Southern Baptist, Ramsey thought religion answered all her questions; it "provided me with stories" that explained life. But she lost her faith and then "I had to figure out new stories," which she expresses with her art.

click to enlarge RAMSEY: With painting "The time had come" in the background image
  • Brian Chilson
  • RAMSEY: With painting "The time had come" in the background.
On a three-month "art tour" of Europe, Ramsey found herself drawn to early Renaissance paintings about martyrs — "so gruesome and so powerful" — including depictions of the tortured St. Agatha, holding her breasts on a plate. That inspired Ramsey's painting of a woman seated at a table across from her infant; her severed breast lies on a plate. For Ramsey, the work expresses a fear of motherhood, which, to a lesser degree than poor Agatha, involves a bit of martyrdom. Others have seen it as a portrayal of the pain of breastfeeding. "That's what I love with narrative work," Ramsey said. People bring their own stories to it. Another of Ramsey's paintings, of a woman seated on a couch beside the severed head of a unicorn, its blood seeping into a corner of her dress, could be read as the death of girlhood dreams. But in either case — severed breasts or unicorn head — the work rises above storytelling thanks to the precision of Ramsey's line, her unusual palette, and the juxtaposition of flat areas, like cutouts, against otherwise normal perspective. "I'm interested in seeing how far I can pull away from reality but retain a sense of reality," Ramsey said.


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