Ian Bell: The fire within

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Above: Whale Tail (detail), 420 x 240 x 100mm, coast banksia

Words and photos: Terry Martin

I first saw Ian Bell’s work at Bungendore Wood Works just outside of the ACT. When you walk among hundreds of pieces made by the best woodcrafters in Australia, it takes something special to really grab your attention, but I was immediately drawn to Ian’s work. One of the first pieces I saw was a stunning whale tail, partly clear wood and partly painted black with tiny divots cut through the paint to reveal dotted peep-views of the wood beneath. The whale’s tail shape was beautiful in its own right, but the contrast of massed tiny cuts gave it an energy that it would not otherwise have. It is compelling and truly unique work, and that is something we don’t often see. Since then I have seen Ian’s whale tails evolve to charm me even more.

In July last year I visited Ian at his home near Wollongong. He is a gentle and modest person, so his story only slowly emerged as we talked about his life, including early influences. He told me that as he grew up he was often left by his busy mother in the care of his grandfather: ‘He used to make budgie boxes’, says Ian, ‘and he’d sell them to supplement his income. I remember that he always wanted everything to be spot-on and if he wasn’t happy with it, he’d put it right.’ Ian also told me that his mother was a painter and that he had always like painting. Who can predict how such early influences will emerge in later life?


Finch, 280 x 200 x 120mm, Huon pine/driftwood, ebonised eucalypt

At school Ian worked hard at what offered more job opportunities. ‘In the early 80s everything pointed towards metalwork’, he said. ‘Like a lot of young fellows then, I wanted to get a job, get a car and go to the beach, so I got a fitting and turning apprenticeship and learned a lot of different skills. The best thing is that you learn to problem- solve. Still, even though I worked at it for a couple of years, it didn’t satisfy me. I needed something different.’

After a season working with his wife in the ski fields, they returned to Wollongong where Ian worked in mechanical engineering for seven years. However, Ian and his wife got itchy feet again and what started as a holiday in Tasmania turned into a new life there, as he explains: ‘I got a job at a company that built catamarans and my wife got a job as a nurse. We stayed in Tasmania for eight years, and had a son and daughter. That was where I learned all the skills for what I do in woodwork now.’


Spring, 550 x 150 x 140mm, Huon pine, driftwood and stone

Ian told me how a souvenir they bought in Tonga inspired him to attempt carving. ‘I tried carving a turtle out of a piece of pine, but I only had a Stanley knife and a couple of chisels, so it was an abysmal failure. But still, it made me think I needed a creative outlet and because I had enjoyed painting when I was young, when I saw an ad for a water colour painting course with Tony Smibert, I decided to try it. I really jumped in for a few years, but I always found that I got more excited from looking at a blank piece of wood than a piece of paper. I could see more in it.’

Ever restless, in 1995 Ian was visiting a TAFE college to enquire about photography courses, but a chance encounter changed his life again. ‘I met someone who was signing up students for woodwork’, he says, ‘so I joined, and did two years of woodturning and furniture making. I really enjoyed the turning because it was kind of therapeutic for me, but I wanted it to pay for itself.’ Ian looked at the woodcrafts on sale in the Salamanca markets and galleries in Hobart, but wasn’t overly impressed. ‘All the turned work looked very similar, so I started carving relief designs on the rims and sometimes painting them, and that got my work into Handmark Gallery where it sold quite well.’


Wren, 120 x 80 x 50mm, Australian red cedar

However, woodturning wasn’t satisfying Ian’s creative urges: ‘I soon realised the pleasure I was getting from it wasn’t because I wanted to make bowls or vases look different, it was because the wood itself was appealing to me. I wanted to work with it off the lathe and do something more sculptural’. Ian soon realised all the grinders, saws, sanders and other tools that he used in aluminium boat building could be transferred straight to wood. ‘It was amazing how it all came together!’, he says.

In 1999 Ian and his family decided to move back to Wollongong. ‘We found this house on the coast and I started making things with my hand tools. I took a dolphin-tail platter with a painted black rim and carved patterns to a gallery in Sydney, and soon (they) wanted more. I started to vary the patterns because doing the same thing all the time is boring, and one day I was looking outside and saw how raindrops were creating overlapping patterns on the concrete. I really liked that, so for a while I tried carving circles in the painted surfaces.’


Wombat, 350 x 160 x 160mm and Joey, 200 x 120 x 120mm in coast banksia

Soon Ian was asked if he was Aboriginal, and he realised that although he had been inspired by the rain patterns, it did look similar. He started exploring a range of different patterns, such as feathers or geometric designs that can’t be confused with Aboriginal work, and that led to a significant breakthrough: ‘I soon found I could change the size of the dots so that it didn’t look like a 2D pattern on the surface. It gave the work more depth.’ Ian describes this form of patterning as a ‘pixelated distillation of naturally occurring design’.

While I was at Ian’s home we walked together across the nearby headlands and beaches. What impressed me was how Ian saw, within the spectacular environment, the tiny details that have inspired much of his work. He showed me how tiny birds darted across the grasses, hunting insects, and I could see how their flitting tails had inspired Ian’s little carved birds.

Ian stopped and pointed to an indentation in the ground and said, ‘I got a good piece of banksia from a dead tree there!’ Further on he showed me where he had picked up a piece of driftwood that became the centre piece of a sculpture. It was clear that the pristine seascape was not only a major visual influence on his work, but also a source of much of his material – taken without harming the environment.


Ian Bell at work on Emergence, 2700mm high x 80mm diameter, ribbon gum.

It is a very special experience to hold one of Ian’s small birds in your hand, not just as a bird but as a shape. It is small enough to fold into your palm and your fingers detect multiple subtle contrasts: the smooth, rounded body leads your fingers to the pointed beak; your fingers slide from the patches of smooth wood to the stippled carvings that in themselves have contrasting waves of texture. This is the same effect of much of Ian’s work, both large and small. Your eye slides along swooping lines and speckled texturing, and it is as if you are feeling it with your eyes.

Ian explained how he decided to produce these very small pieces and how that changed the way he works: ‘I never throw away an offcut, no matter how small, and one day I looked at my pile of offcuts and thought I’d better start making some small things. I decided to start with tiny birds and that meant I had to refine my patterns because it was work on such a small scale. I used my smallest palm chisel and cut the smallest dot I could, and that was the starting point that I worked upwards from. That level of detail has grown into my bigger pieces too, so now there is a lot more detail in them as well.’


Ian with one of his Whale Tails. Photo: Terry Martin

Ian produces a range of echidnas and wombats, some small and some almost life-sized, each with their own distinctive patterning. His patterns extend to his larger work, often spiralling shapes with the emphasis on the vertical dimension. He explains: ‘I feel more freedom in my expression with long linear curves. I love making all the birds and small animals, but these are the forms that please me most.’

Ian’s modesty prevents him from making overblown claims about his work, but this statement from him felt just right to me: ‘I have all these patterns going around in my head, and occasionally I can pull one out and make it happen. I feel I will keep going like that, so there is no end. All of the things I have done in life pointed me to what I am doing now. I had a fire in me and it had to be fed.’

Learn more about Ian Bell at www.ianbellcreations.com.au

Terry Martin is a wood artist and author who lives in Ipswich, Qld, see terrymartinwoodartist.com


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