May 26, 2015

Roberley Bell: Finding Form in Chesterwood's Landscape

  • By: Jamesha Gibson

Roberley Bell is Chesterwood's 2015 artist-in-residence.

Earlier this month, Chesterwood -- a National Trust historic site -- announced that sculptor Roberley Bell was selected as their May 2015 artist-in-residence. During her month-long residency, Bell will complete a new project she calls “object a day.” This project documents Bell’s daily encounters with and reactions to sculptor Daniel Chester French’s studio, family residence, and formal gardens and woodland paths via a sculpted object.

On May 30, Chesterwood will host a talk and reception with Bell about her experience at Chesterwood and the results of her project. Before the elegant affair, we chatted with Bell to learn more about how Chesterwood has influenced her creative process.

As an artist, what drew you to the artist-in-residence program at Chesterwood?

The most intriguing thing, for me, about being at Chesterwood is that you have an opportunity to engage with what Chesterwood is. The thing that is important about this residency is that it’s not a traditional artist residency. There [are] not a lot of artists, you’re not in any kind of community, and I’m really totally on my own; I am thoroughly enjoying that opportunity to be able to just do what it is I want to do in the studio at any given time.

But what drew me to this [program] was this idea of responding to a place -- to a very specific place, to [French’s] home, his garden, [and] his studio and how that might seep into a way of thinking for me. Not in [an attempt] to do figurative work -- my work is totally different, it’s organic abstractions -- but just the idea of how the place can have something to do with your creative process.

Could you describe your “object a day” project and its purpose? How does it connect to your signature artistic technique that creates a dialogue between our interior and exterior worlds?

I set a challenge for myself to make a small study, if you will. I just call them "objects a day." And I call them an “object” because I’m not thinking about a finished piece of sculpture, I’m thinking about it as a form or a way to see form. The “object a day” project really becomes a way of finding form. And the sense of finding form, that term that I’m using comes from an inherent knowledge -- a learned knowledge of a way that I make sculpture. So I’m looking for a certain kind of form, and there’s an intuitive sense of how I find it within something.

In my work, whether I’m working outside or inside, my final sculptures are kind of a juxtaposition of multiple forms together. I ultimately need to start with forms that I invent. So the “object a day” becomes this exercise in discovering form through modeling [or] through picking up a stick and whittling it and then adding to it. It’s really a way that I start to expand the final sculptures, but I have to first start with finding a form. That’s an inventive process for me [because] the form doesn’t exist, I create it.

An overview of "The Shape of the Afternoon," Bell's most recent work that was installed at the deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum from May 16 to October 6, 2014.

In what ways do the grounds -- including Daniel Chester French’s studio, the French family residence, and Chesterwood’s formal gardens and woodland paths -- inspire the creative process for your project?

I wander around a lot. I have my lunch on the porch of French’s studio. It’s a really lovely space. The proportions of the porch are spectacular. It’s probably a 12-foot deep porch that has this wonderful vista to the mountains. I end my day by taking a walk on the woodland path, and at one point on the woodland path, there’s a clearing that again, has this vista, that’s very similar to the one on the porch. But in the woodland path you’re obviously in the woods; on the porch you’re sitting right there in the middle of the Chesterwood estate.

I really like the fact that from his [French’s] studio you go through a formal garden. It’s a very small formal garden, but it’s clearly designed as a formal garden with a little bit of an allée, and you walk through that and you come to the woodland path. I really like the way he has created this sense of distance. He has created these spaces, or these rooms, that you kind of move from one to the other, and when you do that you mentally move from one space to another.

Before you began your residency, what did you expect to discover about your creative process? What have you found since you started your project?

I have to say I didn’t have specific expectations. I had been [to Chesterwood] before so I knew there was the studio, the residence, and I knew [about French’s] interest in the gardens, and I knew about this comparison between the woodlands and the formal garden, that kind of altered nature and that unaltered nature. So I knew that all those would be there, but I also knew that I had to set a challenge for myself. I could’ve just said I’m going to come and do whatever. I’m working on a big project now that gets installed in September [and] I could’ve just come and worked on that. But I really wanted to see how this idea of forcing myself to respond to something could work.

So I’m finding it a challenge, but I’m also finding it exciting. I limited what I brought with me so it’s not like I’m working on something that’s already happening in my studio -- I’m working on what I sit down and respond to. So what’s happened so far is that, I guess I can say its working. I’ve been here 12 days and I have more than 12 little pieces in the studio.

Roberley Bell working in the studio at Chesterwood.

Every day I am making something and I come in the next day and I find that I kind of tweak it, or respond to it, and I start something else. In a day’s time I might start two or three things, because I might start something and then think about something in relationship to that or something that I picked up.

You talked about how you set this challenge for yourself instead of working on a different project. Could you tell me what inspired you to do this challenge?

What really inspired me to say “can you go somewhere and respond to place?” was [that] I’m a firm believer that wherever you are something about place seeps into your work, whether you’re conscious of it or not. And so I thought “Ok, this is a natural environment and I work with a hybrid of natural form, taking my inspiration from nature, so something good is going to come from it.”

But the other thing is that when you’re in your own studio, or at least for me, I tend to focus on the project at hand. I tend to be focusing on “I have to do the schematic drawings for this project,” or, “I have to work on this piece.” The idea of the challenge for myself was, “Can you just go somewhere and kind of erase this sense of the project that you’re working on at hand, and just go back to the beginning? How do I find the forms that I work with? What is the starting point for me?”

And it seemed like this would be a little bit of a hiatus from my own studio. It would be a break. I would be creating, but there isn’t the pressure to create anything specific. There isn’t the pressure on me -- even though I’m making something a day -- [to determine] that any of these objects ever become a finished piece.

What, so far, is your favorite piece and why?

I don’t work with clay. I really like porcelain because of the dry quality of the surface after its [has] been fired. So, when I arrived, I bought myself 50 pounds of plaster and 25 pounds of porcelain and those are the materials, along with sticks and stones, that I’m using.

[I’m] building this piece out of porcelain that is kind of like a scholar’s rock. I’m interested in scholar’s rocks. I’m interested in this eroded natural form that tells time. I’m making this rock, but something’s probably going to go in it or be connected to it. But right now, that’s the piece that I’m most interested in. Maybe it’s because the material also requires that I can only work a little bit a day on it and then I have to let it set because it gets too wet and it needs to dry slowly. So I’m thinking about that piece more, because I can’t just take the plaster and pour it on the wire mesh and call it my object because it’s taking more time.

Three of Bell's "object a day" pieces.

So in a way, maybe that piece is also violating my challenge of an “object a day” because I can’t make it in a day and I’m thinking about it too much. Whereas when I take some wire mesh and plaster, I can make a form really quickly and just leave it and it doesn’t need to be worked on any more.

In what ways will these pieces be used in your future works?

You know, I don’t know. Like I said, this is about finding form for me. So will these become studies that get translated into a larger form? Will they become one of the little objects that ends up in my larger sculptures, that are like these still life juxtapositions between forms? It’s really hard to say. That’s going to take months or a year of them just being on the shelf in my studio back in New York because it’s not possible for me to say that.

I can’t even tell you right now, when I pack up on June 1, if all 31 of these objects [will] go with me, or will I throw some of them away. I tend to think that that won’t be the case. I tend to think that they’ll all go back and, [although they may not] necessarily become a part of something, they might become a starting point for making an actual sculpture.

So I think, if anything, I would refer to them as studies. They’re an “object-a-day,” which is an object that equals finding form a day, or creating a form a day that becomes a potential study for a future piece.

The Chesterwood artist talk and reception featuring Roberley Bell will be held on Saturday, May 30 at 4 p.m. To find out more about Roberley Bell, visit Note: This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Jamesha Gibson is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She is passionate about using historic preservation as an avenue for underrepresented communities to share their unique stories. Jamesha also enjoys learning about other cultures through reading, art, language, dancing, and especially cuisine.

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