Folk and Self-Taught Art
Ralph Bell was tragically institutionalized in Orient State Hospital, near Columbus, Ohio, at the age of ten with cerebral palsy, which was not diagnosed properly for many years. He was introduced to painting by Dean Campbell, an art instructor and therapist. Dean convinced Ralph to try painting with a stylus on his head because his hands and arms were disabled. When Ralph tried this approach, he soon became enthralled by painting and the personal expressive freedom that he gained from it. Bell's first works were in the medium in which he was most prolific, watercolor. The early works have a blocky, exaggerated, "carving" of forms which one associates with German Expressionist woodcuts, which in turn were inspired by African and Oceanic carvings. His middle period watercolors are distinguished by their fluid, curvilinear wet-on-wet washes of saturated color. Ralph's watercolors are activated by dashes, dots, and calligraphic gestures. The artist created a small but excellent series of watercolors (1989-1990) which are characterized by their frenetic lines. He dipped the end of a pencil into watercolor to create these works. Ralph's acrylic paintings on canvas, masonite, and wooden paneled doors have much of the fresh, personally articulated calligraphy of his drawings. Many of these paintings have flickering colors juxtaposed to white writhing scrambled lines that have affinities with Futurism and Abstract Expressionism. Bell's paintings evolved toward a denser, more palpable physicality of paint handling in the early 1990s which is relieved by open breathing areas of white canvas.