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Fred Bell's Portrait of the Marshall Building

Jun. 1, 2011
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Artist Fred Bell aims to paint an 8-by-6-inch portrait of every tenant in the Marshall Building (207 E. Buffalo St.). The one-year project was initiated by Debra Brehmer, whose Portrait Society Gallery is one of many businesses in the six-story Third Ward landmark. The first paintings will be unveiled at a reception at the building's Open House on Friday, June 3. They'll remain on display as Bell adds more. The hope is that each will eventually be purchased and hung in the hallway outside tenants' doors.

Why portraits?

Before I met Deb Brehmer two years ago, I was doing Wauwatosa landscapes, things like that. I was doing one small painting every day and posting it on Facebook. It's a terrific exercise; it keeps you working every day. I recommend it to any painter. You never know if they'll work out. You want them to, of course, but you've only got one day. I'd do the whole painting in one sitting because I wanted them to have spontaneity, ease. I think it gives them a more friendly feeling. When I came to Deb, I was doing a series of nine little paintings of the same thing: a rock, a doorknob, a chair. She encouraged me to do more series, so I decided to do self-portraits. It was the first series that sold. So then all of a sudden I'm a portrait painter. It's something I've always wanted to do. People call me from other parts of the country for portraits now.

They're beautiful.

Having your portrait painted is sort of an elevating thing. A portrait has a certain soul to it that a photo doesn't have. When I do a portrait, it's like I'm putting paint on the person's face. From the time I spend talking with them, I'm able to develop a feeling about what kind of person they might be. I try to bring out the best in them. I would rather show people without all their warts. I want the painting to be somewhat inspirational to them.

What is your background?

The arts choose you. You see that you can do something, and then deciding not to do it is very difficult—harder than just doing it. I was born and raised in Wauwatosa. I ended up studying in Provincetown at the Cape School of Art with Henry Hensche. Then I lived and studied for 15 years in New York City. I didn't think I'd ever come back to Milwaukee.

Why did you?

I needed a job, my ex-wife wanted to move here, she thought we could both get jobs, my parents were getting older. When you move back home after being away, you are not the same naïve person. What has surprised me is that many of the opportunities I would have liked to have in New York I got here. I got the understanding in New York, but the opportunity to make things happen here.


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