aila Bell grew up north of Copenhagen, Denmark in a small village “wedged between a river, lake and the ocean.”
After studying at the Danish Design School, The Art Institute of Chicago, and The Academy of Art San Francisco, life “changed dramatically” for the delicate-boned sculptor when she immigrated to Australia, married, and soon after welcomed the arrival of three daughters.
But the greatest adjustment was yet to come: When her youngest was nine months old, Bell suddenly found herself navigating life as a single “mum.”
“The challenge to combine motherhood and art in my newly adopted country was immense,” Bell tells me, “but I was determined to do my utmost to keep both aspects of my life as vibrant and balanced as possible.”
INTERVIEW WITH LAILA BELL, SCULPTOR
Byron Bay, New South Wales ~
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Can you tell me a bit about your life in the small village where you grew up? I imagine being surrounded by water shaped you deeply as an artist, giving you a different sense of time, for instance?
Laila Bell: It’s a little known fact that Denmark consist of 406 islands, and from any point in Denmark you will be very close to a coastline. The big unhindered sky by the ocean gives me such a wonderful sense of expansion and freedom, but more than anything, I do believe that it was the long, cold and dark winters that come along with living in a country like Denmark that shaped my upbringing, as it gave me a level of introspection which rose to a more internal personality. Danes are not known for their exuberance and extroverted personalities! (Except during the long summer days and nights!) During those long winters, there were plenty of opportunities for artistic pursuits. I would spend hours on end drawing, and it is in drawing that I find the stable foundation in my life still today as an artist. My sculptural work in clay has benefited greatly from all those hours of drawing.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: How would you describe the Danish aesthetic? One tends to think of uncluttered lines, light, and in place of sharp angles: a gentle sloping. Or is the aesthetic constantly evolving? Is there an element of your work now that reflects your Danish roots?
Laila Bell: Yes, Deanna, Danish design is known for its simplicity and purity of form and function. It’s also very influenced by the gentle landscape ~ soft curvy lines abound!
Laila Bell: No doubt my sculptures, paintings and drawings reflect the Nordic exposure.
For me, it is the strong sense of authenticity combined with strength of form that speaks to me in the sculptors I admire from Scandinavia, and I naturally gravitate to these qualities in my work.
Laila Bell: I remember vividly the event that crystallized for me what I wanted to explore in this life: In year twelve, we were taken on an excursion to Vigeland Sculpture Park in Oslo. It was one of those a-ha! moments. I was in awe of the monumental yet gentle and emotional work, and Vigeland’s work continues to be an inspiration.
Laila Bell: Another Scandinavian sculptor whose work I greatly admire is Gerhard Henning. When I look at my Athlete and his Seated Girl, I can see that Nordic influence of sensuous yet firm lines.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: What was the most difficult adjustment you had to make coming to Australia?
Laila Bell: I landed in a small country town. After living in a cosmopolitan city like Copenhagen, it felt like going back twenty years, or more. The attitudes were quite conservative and I found it stifling in many ways. There was not much happening on the art scene, and with Australia being such an incredibly large continent, it was difficult to get to any art shows or galleries without many hours of traveling. I felt quite alone and lost and very homesick for a while, but when my first-born arrived, of course, my focus changed.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Do you find that being a woman artist brings a particular set of challenges most people are not aware of?
Laila Bell: Yes, it’s certainly been challenging at times, Deanna! As a female artist in an area where males have dominance in the choice of what gets purchased, exhibited and focused on in most established art museums and galleries in the Western World, it is little wonder that there are so few women artists being celebrated and shown.
As a single mother, I decided long ago not to rely solely on my art for financial support, as it would have been incredibly difficult and very stressful. My children are my greatest joy and achievement and it is their happiness, emotional development and well-being that is most important to me. Now, my youngest daughter is twenty-one, so I at last have the luxury of time to focus on a more single-minded, art-filled journey.
Deanna Phoenix Selene: Just before you left for Australia, you published a book of erotic poetry and drawings. What led you to write erotica? Did you feel there was something important missing from women’s conversations with men, with other women, or with themselves? What feedback did you receive?
Laila Bell: Well, the book came about in a very organic way. It started with my erotic drawings. Denmark was a very open-minded, liberal place to be and I was young and explorative. It just seemed like a good idea to put those illustrations together with erotic poetry written by women. So, I got two other established women writers involved and put the book together. I perceived my drawings as poetry in line form so it made sense to me to put the two art forms together. At the time it was a novelty for women to explore and express their sexuality using their own voices. The book was well received.
Laila Bell: Looking over my body of work, I realize that my figures do express a sense of stillness, introspection and quiet contentment. With the daily onslaught of harrowing news, it is easy to loose hope in the human race. It is my wish that my sculptures bring some beauty, peace and tranquility into people’s lives. To connect them back to a place of hope.
Laila Bell: The moment I hold clay in my hands I seem to go to a different place. It grounds me and I go to that place beyond time and space. It’s meditation for me and it’s highly addictive. I turn my internal critique off and I trust the process of adding and subtracting clay. It’s a magical space to be in. There is peacefulness and a sense of purpose that descends upon me as I work.