Arts: The courage of Ralph Bell

Peter Tonguette
Dean Campbell

Thirty-five years ago, Dean Campbell answered a classified ad for an art instructor with United Cerebral Palsy of Columbus and Franklin County. He got the job, which he expected to last a few months. Instead, he stayed for 11 years. What changed? “I met Ralph,” he says.

Ralph Bell, then a 69-year-old cerebral palsy-afflicted quadriplegic, had that kind of effect on people. Despite seemingly insurmountable odds, Bell's talents were astonishing. As a painter, his late-in-life artistic renaissance attracted a devoted following before he died in 1995. In January, a new Keny Galleries' exhibit, African American Masterworks, which runs through March 1, will feature the work of, among others, Bell, whose colorful, effervescent pieces were created with the help of a brush attached to a hat.

“I tend to use the word ‘masterworks' pretty carefully,” says gallery co-owner Tim Keny, who placed Bell alongside such luminaries as Elijah Pierce and Aminah Robinson in the exhibit. “There's this very tactile, visceral physicality of his paint-handling, which you can compare to some of the abstract expressionists—even Pollock and de Kooning and people like that. But it had more of a positive, rhythmic, colorful quality.”

A native of Columbus, Bell was one of several children born to a Cherokee father and an African-American mother, Campbell says. At age 9, he was uprooted from his family and institutionalized at the state hospital in Orient, which served as his home for 60 years. “The legal name of that was Orient State Institute for the Feeble-Minded,” Campbell says. “He did not like that. But they needed a place where they could take care of his needs.”

An occupational therapist at Orient presented Bell, at the age of 67, with the headgear outfitted with a paintbrush. “He said, ‘Get that thing off my head,'” Campbell says. “He didn't want anything to do with that. [The therapist] encouraged him that week, and then after about a week, he started liking it. And then you just [couldn't] get it away from him.”

When Campbell met Bell two years later, the art instructor was skeptical at first. “They were telling me that we're going to have this guy who paints with his head,” Campbell says. “I don't know what that means. … So I decided I'm going to just reserve judgment.” After several weeks of observation, Campbell became a believer. “I was just thinking … ‘This is the real deal. This is an artist in the truest sense of the word.'”

The same year he met Campbell, Bell moved from Orient to Park West Court Apartments on the West Side. No matter his address, however, his creative output was unrelenting. “When I met him, he was doing watercolors, and he'd finish one by noon,” Campbell says. “And then he'd do another one in the afternoon, and then, when he went home, he would paint some more.”

In 1983, Ellen Nasner became the first collector of Bell's work following a visit to United Cerebral Palsy. “I really just fell in love with this one watercolor painting, and I asked if I could actually buy it,” Nasner says. “No one had ever bought any of Ralph's work before, and Dean said, ‘Well, I'll talk to Ralph,' and they both agreed.”

Four years later, the Brenda Kroos Gallery hosted the artist's inaugural solo show. Bell's vivid paintings frequently depicted color-drenched scenes populated by all manner of flora and fauna, including happy-faced people and inquisitive canines. “You would think that it would be dark paintings [from] someone who has suffered so much in his life,” says Mark Chepp, who as director of the Springfield Museum of Art oversaw a Bell exhibit in 1997. “They're bright, and they're colorful, although if you look closely, yes, there are people with smiling faces, but they tend not to have limbs.”

“Ralph … was sent to Orient because they thought he had no intellectual capacity, because of his physical disability,” says Columbus Museum of Art executive director Nannette Maciejunes, who acquired two paintings by Bell in 1993 for the museum. “And here inside this man was not only an intellectual capacity, but a great creative capacity.”

It seems Bell was thankful for his unique second chapter. “His life was just a true victory,” Nasner says. “He left a legacy of art for art's sake with a lot of love and passion—underscored by a lot of courage.”