Baton Rouge native Emerson Bell (1931–2006) demonstrated an early talent and enthusiasm for the visual arts, an interest he claimed derived from the community of his formative years. “A lot of notable people came from South Baton Rouge, who were like internationally-known singers and musicians and teachers and professors... it was a haven for great knowledge where I lived,” he said in a 2002 interview with Louisiana State University PhD candidate Barbara Faulkner.
In South Baton Rouge, Bell participated in the African Methodist Church. The Church’s rich symbolic imagery, painted scenes, and choral music inspired his lifelong pursuit to express a spiritual dimension in his art. Although he had no formal training, Bell became known in the community as a capable young artist and received his first commission, a fresco of the saints for Greater St. Michael Baptist Church, at just fifteen years old.
After graduating from McKinley High School, Bell lived in New York and Detroit for a time and served abroad in the military. In the mid-1960s, he returned to Baton Rouge. He enrolled in the local vocational-technical school, where he learned to work wood, metal, and stone, and studied informally with other artists in their studios.
Bell began teaching in the 1970s. He was the first artist-in-residence in an East Baton Rouge Parish school to be funded by the National Endowment for the Arts. At that time, Bell also began to exhibit his work regularly in New Orleans. Additionally, he joined the newly-formed Baton Rouge Gallery, where he developed lasting friendships with many local artists, among them Frank Hayden, Randell Henry, John Payne, Martin Payton, and Clifton Webb.
Emerson Bell, The Prophet, date unknown. Gouache on paper, 14 x 14 1/4 inches. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Frank Prestia. Louisiana Art & Science Museum Collection, 2002.013.001
In addition to his paintings, frescos, and gouache works on paper, Bell was a skilled sculptor who mastered the media of plaster, copper, metals, stone, and clay through studies with Frank Hayden.