category: Faculty Emeriti - In Honor Of

Susan Carlisle Bell

Professor Emerita of Art

Susan Bell portrait
Susan Carlisle Bell

Susan Carlisle Bell (1951- ) was the third child born to Elizabeth and Thomas Jones on Aug. 18, 1951, in Wytheville, Va. She loved the outdoors, nature and farm life. Bell and her sisters grew up riding horses and cleaning out stalls at one of her father’s farms. He even raised cattle at another farm with a friend, and her father also owned a farm supply business where he sold everything from appliances to spring chickens.  

Her mother was a stay-at-home mom and freelance artist. “My grandmother Carlisle lived with us,” Bell related. “Having her presence in my life made it all that much richer. They were strong Christians and believed in hard work and treated others with respect.” 

Besides being a painter, Bell’s mother was a talented musician and skilled in sewing and needlework. She led each of her daughters to take up one of her talents. “I don’t know if we had a leaning or she encouraged it,” Bell reflected. “I always got the art supplies. She always made sure that I had plenty of supplies and a place to create. That’s what I tell parents—Sometimes it’s not the lessons as much as it is the availability and the willingness to put up with some creative messes.” 

Bell said most of the time her mother did her creative freelance work while she and her sisters were in school. However, if her mother had a deadline looming, she would work at home in the evening, and Bell loved watching her mom draw and paint.   

Having grown up in a small town in the shadow of her sisters, Bell decided she wanted to go to college anywhere that her sisters weren’t. A cousin recommended Mary Baldwin in Staunton (Va.) She earned her bachelor’s degree in art history and studio from there in 1973. She obtained her Master of Arts in Christian Education in 1975 from Presbyterian School of Christian Education in Richmond, Va. In 1977, she had the privilege of auditing a class on portraiture at Gordon College in Boston, Mass., taught by Conger Metcalf, a nationally known painter. He taught the class as a thank you to Gordon-Conwell’s seminary president, Dr. Harold John Ockenga. Ockenga’s wife was an artist, and Conger had come to faith under Ockenga’s preaching. 

“One day he would draw the whole human head as bone, another day just as muscle, and then the last day he put the flesh on, and the life in the eyes, and it was magical,” Bell reminisced.   “Then, he started crying, and he said, ‘All my life I’ve studied the body but it’s only been in the last few years that I’ve met the creator.’ That impacted me so much—that one sentence was not only his testimony, but his knowledge and reverence for the human body and the creator has impacted my life ever since, and I was maybe 24.”  

In the 1980s, Bell moved to Cleveland County, N.C., with her husband and daughter, Elizabeth. When she and her husband divorced, Bell applied at Gardner-Webb not knowing that the art professor had resigned just as school was opening for the fall semester. She was hired part time in 1986, and the job was exactly what she needed. “Elizabeth, who was in the fifth grade, had the continuity of staying in the same school with her friends,” Bell explained.  

In 1990, she earned her Master of Arts in art education from the University of South Carolina. Every year, she completed an intensive workshop for continuing education. In these workshops, she studied various mediums and techniques with Christopher Schink, Gerald Brommer, Skip Lawrence, Ed Knippers, Wolf Kahn, Carl Dalio, Carol Katchen, and many more.   

At Gardner-Webb, Bell developed the art minor and taught the following classes: “Art Education for the Classroom Teacher,” “Art History,” “Studio: Drawing, Painting, Life Drawing, and Ceramics,” and “Media: Acrylics, Pastels, Watercolor and Collage.”  

Susan Bell, right, talks to a student about her painting.

She also created the class, “Christianity and Art,” which was a student favorite. Many of Bell’s students were English or religion majors, and she noted, “the art component beautifully dovetailed, because the way you study a painting is very much the way you would study a scripture, letting the author/artist speak, looking at the contents, looking at their wider work and being an observer of details. The way you would do creative writing or study a poem is the same way.” 

As part of her class, students read a book by Henry Nouwen, a Catholic priest, who studied Rembrandt’s painting of the prodigal son, and used it to describe how he was both the prodigal and the elder brother—and then God called him to be the father. “Nouwen says in his book, ‘I don’t know if the painting is helping me to understand the scripture or the scripture is helping me to understanding the painting,’” Bell stated.  

Nouwen’s book is tied to a special highlight of her teaching career. “One of my students said to me, ‘Ms. Bell, I’ve been the prodigal and this book and this painting has helped me to see that God loves me unconditionally,’” Bell described. “Moments like that are the reason you teach.” 

Bell won several student choice awards for her teaching. She also led extensive museum studies in 15 countries and over 75 American museums. She continues to be a frequent lecturer for church, school and community groups. She enjoys working in acrylics, watercolors, ink, and collage. Her experiences as a teacher gave her opportunities to study the human figure as well as landscape and still life in abstract and realistic styles. Influenced by her art historical studies, she values the use of the elements and principles of design to create strong compositions. 

Reflecting on her career, Bell observed, “Am I a teacher who paints or an artist who teaches, for over 40 years I have enjoyed both. Historical and museum studies inform my work as well as yearly painting workshops. Michelangelo chose as his epitaph: ‘I am still learning.’ I love that! The students I have taught and the different subjects and mediums have encouraged me to keep learning. My studies and my teaching have motivated me to explore a variety of styles, mediums and motifs.”  

Written by Jackie Bridges, April 2022 

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