Joy Bell shares how her early artistic career and proceeds from her antique store in Ponsonby fuelled her second life as a single mother and public artist in Warkworth for the past two decades. In that time her intricate mosaics have adorned public spaces, from the toilets at Matheson Bay, Puhoi and the Old Cement Works to the Warkworth Clock Tower.
Joy showed Cathy Aronson around her converted Woodcocks Church home, where she discovered mosaics by decorating her gardens with leftover antique plates, as she plans to create a new gallery and workshop space for the next chapter of her creative life.
My dream was always art. We had no artists, or redheads, in the family. When my mum picked me up from my first day at school, the teacher said ‘you have a very artistic daughter, make sure she always has heaps of materials’. So from then on my mum wouldn’t let me do any housework and would say ‘just draw’.
I won lots of art awards. By the time I was 13 I was selling pictures of trees and bush scenes for $35 in coffee shops in Takapuna. I thought I was a real artist. It was all my mum’s doing, she was my biggest admirer. My parents immigrated from Yorkshire when I was 10 years old, my mum was a nurse and my dad was an engineer. I was the middle child and had a younger brother and older sister. I spent time in the US as an exchange student.
I was laughed out of art school for being too old school; I was into realism in the 70s when it was un-hip and ‘cameras could do that’. I won an art award by splashing paint on a board, and I cried because my entry was meant to be a joke. Then I realised I never wanted to be part of the art world; it was cruel and horrible and I distrusted it.
I was loved in the commercial art world, which I never wanted to be part of. When I was 19, I walked into a Parnell agency and became an intermediate finished artist doing artwork, typography for adverts and travel brochures and packaging. I was the only female, so got all the perfumes and pretty stuff. It was well paid.
I started an art gallery on Ponsonby Road when I was 23. I lived the trendy life and got a lot of free publicity as a ‘young artist with a gallery’. It was a big risk at the time, and I never made any money from it, so a year later it became an antique shop, ‘Old Friends’, which did make a lot of money.
Things often happen by accident, not by design. I didn’t know what I was doing and I had no background in antiques other than I could restore, refinish and present well. Then I had another antique shop called Joy’s Antiques in Dominion Road. I ended up becoming the antique teddy bear specialist in New Zealand. I sold my collection for $125,000 and bought a five-bedroom villa in Ponsonby and then ended up being freehold by 1995.
I left the city and my income and became a mother when I was 36 years old. I bought a house in the west of Warkworth that used to be the Woodcocks Church, then a school for 10 years; it was derelict by 1919 and then boarded up. It’s a tiny house, we call it the doll’s house.
It was a big thing to have a house in the country, a horse, do art full time and be a single mum. Since then I’ve chosen to do my art rather than have a relationship. I couldn’t fit anything else in. I could pay the bills but I wouldn’t have survived as an artist if I had to pay rent or a mortgage. My friends and neighbours have always been very supportive.
I gave myself three years to be an artist. I started making money for the kids making reverse decoupage gilded vases with Victorian art nouveau images inside. When I think of them now, bringing images together is like mosaics, making a whole out of pieces. Recycling is a very strong thing for me, taking something people don’t want and making it into something people would argue over. It’s a very satisfying feeling, working with a discarded object and making it beautiful.
My son Alec and daughter Rose were born only thirteen months apart, they are now 21 and 19 and have left home. They were in the same year at Mahurangi College. Not having a proper job meant I could give back for the kids. I was chair of the PTA at Kaipara Flats School, chaired the Warkworth Pony Club; I did far too much, I was on so many committees. Most people are too shy. I’m incredibly hard working to a fault. At least I’ve given that to the kids. They could see that art was a hard road. They never had enough, it was never a good living, I was obsessively consumed by it and they saw it drain me.
I’ve been at it for 21 years now, 15 years doing mosaics. It’s been a privilege to be a public artist. My first job was the Snells Beach toilets, a Rodney Council arts advisor helped me take the next step. External mosaics worked for public buildings because of their high durability and low maintenance. It is hard physical work, your hands bleed through your gloves.
My work changed eight years ago when I got a Gemini Saw for the Orewa toilets next to the library. It meant I could do detailed work and cultural, historical realism. I wouldn’t have been able to do the Puhoi story without it. I’ve demonstrated all over the world at mosaic conventions. It got to the stage where I had to say no to jobs. It was getting a bit ridiculous, I had a lot of art around.
The Warkworth Clock Tower got the very best treatment. It was the most important work I have done, but also the hardest experience. It nearly didn’t happen after the Supercity changeover and the public art law change. Tracey Martin spoke about the Clock Tower in parliament and the Warkworth community came out to support it, so it worked out beautifully in the end.
To be a practicing artist in New Zealand you’d have to be very strategic, very ‘emperor’s new clothes’, hoodwinking to get publicity. I don’t want to be part of that world. I’d prefer to skirt around or under it. Real art to me is what the public like. It was same with antique shop – if they deemed it to be beautiful, they would buy it even if they didn’t have the money. That is successful. But selling to someone who has heaps of money because they think it’s going to be worth more money wouldn’t make me feel great.
When the kids left home, I wanted to give back to the arts and joined the North Rodney Community Arts Council. I remember winning the Rodney District Art Awards prize of $1200 when I had no money and I could buy tyres for the car. I never expected to win, after my experience of art school. That makes me want to give back; it’s not just for the money but giving artists the confidence to keep going.
The Waikumete Cemetery stillborn sanctuary was a very special project. The parents chose the mosaic tiles and shrine wall. I am doing another large mosaic installation for the stillborn section at Purewa Cemetery, and it will be my last public project. I’m turning the house into a gallery and workshop, and I’m retiring from mosaics to become a textile artist, doing rug hooking and fake taxidermy. It’s part of being 56 and lifting a tonne of cement adhesive at a time, thinking sooner or later my back will go. The fake taxidermy has been trying to come out for years. I do have a black sense of humour, I’m not very PC and don’t like behaving. I describe myself as a fun-seeking missile and, as life gets shorter, I find the search for fun more so.
I would do it all again. I couldn’t do anything else. I wake up in the morning and my eyes go ‘pop’ like a cartoon character and I can’t wait to get started on the hundreds of ideas in my head.
Just after this interview with Joy Bell before Easter, her son, Alec Gannaway, was severely injured in a hit and run incident. He will be recovering in hospital for months to come and a Givealittle page has been set up to help support the family during this time. Go to givealittle.co.nz/cause/prayersforalec