Calvin Bell: Double the artist and double the “silly nonsense”

Calvin Bell in his studio. Picture: Billy Spencer

By BILLY SPENCER

“I had organised art shows in California. I’d had a formal dinner from the mayor of Los Angeles. I’d been invited to the White House to see the president.”

Zaide Belini had accomplished all this and had only been alive less than three years.

“Zaide Belini” came into being about 40 years ago in America and was painting contemporary artworks almost literally from birth. He lived in the States for three years, his housing and travel expenses provided for by the American Government. Belini has continued to paint contemporary artworks ever since.

This highly successful alter ego was created by Australian artist Calvin Bell when he was in the US on a Fulbright Scholarship all those decades ago, and in a typically irreverent mood. 

Take a look at the photograph accompanying this feature and you’ll see there’s no paint on the paintbrush.

“I get my artists to do this all the time, just pick up a paintbrush and paint,” Bell says with a grin; it’s supposed to be obviously staged. “I can be a bit of a jokester,” he warns before the interview. 

Calvin Bell is the president of Provenance Artists Inc and tutors artists at Provenance Art Studio in his garage in Narre Warren South. His art hangs in England, France, America, China, New Zealand and more.

His passion for art started young. “When I was a little kid, I was very naughty. Got sent to the bedroom. And what did I do? I’d draw people’s faces with big, long noses.”

In high school, the art continued. “When I was in … about Year 8, our teacher said to us: ‘If you draw a picture … and you get 20 spelling words right, you get out of school half an hour early’.”

Bell left school early every day except one in that year, he says. “I did a lot of art, and I got a silly sense of humour … so when they had the graduation balls, my job was to do a cartoon of every teacher. And I loved it.”

Bell was asked to do a painting for the 1998 opening of the Waltzing Matilda Centre in Winton, Queensland. “I get a message: ‘Calvin, can you do us a picture of Waltzing Matilda for the art show?’ I said no. They ask about five times, I say no. Everyone’s painted Waltzing Matilda, I’m not gonna paint Waltzing Matilda.”

Rock of Ages by Zaide Belini. Image: blue thumb.com.au

But inspiration struck on the freeway between Gold Coast and Brisbane. “I put the radio on and it was Howard, the [then] prime minister, and the government talking about the Wik debate,” he recalls, a devilish smile emerging on his face.

“They wanted Waltzing Matilda but I rewrote it in four sections. The first verse, I painted the prime minister sitting there as the swagman at the billabong. He had the deputy prime minister behind him, the High Court in the background.

“The second section was all the Aboriginal people, there were some famous Aboriginal people that we all knew like [Patrick] Dodson and his white beard.

“Then the third one: in the story the drovers come on their horses, counting one, two, three. And so what did they do? They came past a fish-and-chip shop, and there was a red-headed woman outside it.

“One of the senators at the time was Harradine from Tasmania … the last one was Harradine pushing them all into the billabong.”

The Waltzing Matilda Centre met a fiery fate in 2015, and is is due to reopen early next year after a rebuild. Bell’s 2m painting was spared, because it’s hanging in Federal Parliament.

As well as producing and tutoring in art, Bell has run art shows in Queensland, New Zealand, and California. For now he is mostly staying in his local area and is running the Edrington Grand Art Exhibition – held at the Edrington Park in Berwick, the home of Australia’s 16th Governor-General, Lord Richard Casey. 

Bell’s living room is littered with stacks of both his and Zaide Belini’s paintings for a forthcoming art show. They cover all of his favoured media – oils, watercolours – all of his favourite styles – traditional, contemporary, caricature – and are all in a style that is very “him”.

“I had training in New Zealand, I had training in Australia and training in America. With all those influences, you end up doing your own thing.” 

His garage/studio smells faintly of paint and looks as crowded as you’d expect given about 30 artists do their work there at various times. Bell brings his “own thing” to tutoring.

“What I do in teaching is different from anyone else,” Bell says. “Having been through schools and that sort of thing … when you go they say ‘you will learn this’. I say to you ‘what do you want to paint? What topic do you want? What medium do you want? How big do you want it? What style do you want?’.

Morning @ Mornington, painting by Calvin Bell.Image: blue thumb.com.au

“And so I like people to develop their own style based on everything they can find. I say my style is just me, after all these years.

“The joy of artists exhibiting their work … it’s all good fun,” Bell says. “I just love the silly nonsense of it. I love people having a giggle.”

Bell revels in the fun, grinning as he tells stories of frustration, such as how he tried to get a family portrait of a High Court judge who wouldn’t stop posing. Or Richard Nixon being overseas for their White House visit. Or how Zaide Belini came by his name. 

“We had great friends there [America] who were Italians,” says Calvin Bell. “He looked at me and said, ‘Calvin? That’s underpants to me’.” Bell’s friend is referring to Calvin Klein. “And then he changed my name, he said, ‘I’m not gonna call you underpants, I’m gonna call you Zaide’.

“My surname is Bell, and that became Belini. So all my art that I painted in the States went under the name of Zaide Belini.

“Now, something like 40 years later, I still paint under Zaide Belini, all my contemporary art. I do my traditional paintings under my own name: Calvin.”