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Greenville & Hockessin Life

Artists plan show of wildlife-inspired art at Delaware Museum of Natural History

Jul 07, 2015 11:18AM ● By J. Chambless

Jeff Bell and John Rush are collaborating on a show for the Delaware Museum of Natural History this fall that will feature artwork inspired by wildlife.

By Steven Hoffman
Staff Writer

“That whale and I have done battle. We are still battling,” Jeff Bell explains, pointing to the half-finished humpback whale on his worktable that he has painstakingly shaped out of metal. “I’m over 100 hours with that whale already -- and I’m a long way from finished.”

The six-foot-long whale is one of a dozen or more pieces that Bell is working on at the moment. He does everything from garden sculptures to gates to railings to custom design work in copper, stainless steel, iron, aluminum, and metal.

When Bell wins that battle with the whale -- and he will win -- the completed piece will be included in a wildlife show that Bell is being featured in at the Delaware Museum of Natural History this fall. Bell and fellow sculptor and longtime friend John Rush are teaming up for the show.

The Delaware Museum of Natural History is looking forward to having the two talented Kennett Square artists team up for the show, which will take place from Oct. 23 to Nov. 22.

Bell in his workshop with the whale that has been difficult to complete.

 “We’re incredibly excited to have two of the premier artists in this area display their work at the Museum,” said Delaware Museum of Natural History Executive Director Halsey Spruance. “Artists often find inspiration for their pieces in the most unlikely places, but one constant throughout history has been the inspiration that can be found in nature. That’s what we’re showcasing here, and it fits tremendously well into the experience we’re hoping to provide for our visitors.”

For Rush and Bell, there’s a lot of work to do before the show. Each sculptor is planning to complete between 12 and 15 pieces of wildlife-inspired artwork.

Rush has already conquered his whale—the finely crafted piece sculpted out of wood dominates one room of his home. He said that he made the whale out of wood from a tree that was twisted. He sanded the wood down and used the existing shape of the wood to design a massive mammal that is very serviceable as a bench.

“The whole concept,” Rush explained, “was to make a twisted, free-form bench.”

Rush has put the finishing touches on several pieces already, but he admits that he's a little worried about falling behind schedule for the upcoming show.

John Rush with one of his pieces that he has completed for the upcoming show.

 “My biggest challenge is that I never sculpt a lot in the summer,” he explained. Rush named his workspace where he does the sculpting the Second Wind Studios because all his artistic endeavors take place on weekends or after work. He and his wife married in 1993 and are raising three boys, and he works full-time in the family business—a demanding job that keeps him very busy. The Rushes are also restoring their gorgeous home, which was originally built in 1817, one small section at a time.

Rush said that he is looking forward to the wildlife show with Bell, a longtime friend whom he admires.

“Part of the excitement is that the show will make me find the time to do this sculpting again,” Rush explained.

Art has always been a focal point of Bell's life. These days, his commute for work is the short walk from his house to the workshop, a converted hunting cabin. He first developed an interest in art as an elementary school student at Mitchell Preparatory School on the Main Line.

“I started taking art classes when I was nine,” Bell explained. “I was fortunate that my mom saw something in me.”

He filled his school schedule with as many art classes that he could take, discovering that he liked—and had a talent for—many different forms.

After high school, Bell earned a degree in body shop and paint from the Automotive Training Center in Exton.

“I took my art into the automotive world,” Bell explained. “I did a lot of custom painting.”

His talents allowed him to pursue many different opportunities. He built custom Harley-Davidsons and did custom work on Corvettes. Eventually, he opened his own shop, Collision Craft, in Avondale. He ran the shop for 25 years.

After he retired from the shop in 1999, he had more time to devote to his art. He focused on garden art, weather vanes, or crafting gates. He did custom work for several high-end homebuilders. If someone wanted something a little different, like fireplace doors, Bell would give that a try. He worked on projects all over the region, from the beaches of Delaware to Philadelphia to Maryland. He worked on projects for several different museums.

At this stage of his life and career, Bell is always juggling several different projects, whether it's doing the railing work for a home or making the hinges for wooden boxes that a local company is manufacturing out of materials from the USS Constitution. He works with acclaimed local artist Stan Smokler on the Marshall Bridge Welding Workshop, which teaches students how to safely weld and create sculptures.

He and Smokler are also teaming up for a project later this year where they will design sculptures for the walking trail of Auburn Heights, on property that was once the site of the NVF plant. The artists will be utilizing materials from the NVF plant to create the sculptures.

Bell is accustomed to having a lot of irons in the fire.

“I'm always trying to do a balancing act,” he explained. “We're very multi-directional here.”

While Bell works with many different materials, including copper and brass because of their colors, he is best-known for his work with metal.

“I've been bending metal and shaping metal most of my adult life,” he explained. “There's not a lot that I can't do with it. At temperatures, you can move it like butter.”

Rush's preference is to work with wood, and all his entries in the upcoming show will be sculpted out of wood.

A Chester County native, Rush attended Kennett High School, which is where his love of woodworking first began to grow. He took a woodworking class because he wanted to learn how to twist and manipulate wood.

“Through the school’s industrial arts program, I developed a specific interest in woodworking, and my craft grew from there,” Rush explained.

He graduated from Kennett High School in 1984, and shortly thereafter made a visit to the Wharton Esherick Museum in Paoli. Rush said the visit had a big impact on his future work, and really fired his enthusiasm for sculpting with wood.

“I spent the next 20 years finding my style and learning to work with—and not against—my medium,” he explained.

His first show came in 2000. Like Bell, Rush is talented working in several different areas. He spent years working with glass. In 2006, he opened his home studio, Second Wind Studios, as a way to devote more time to the work whenever he got a chance.

Rush is very deliberate and thoughtful when he's going through the process of deciding what a particular piece of wood will be used for. He has learned how to work with the grain of the wood, and not against it.

“I will spend time looking at the pieces until I see a pattern,” Rush explained.

If he has a hard time seeing how a particular piece of wood can be used, he puts it out in the open so that he sees it when he enters or leaves the studio. Eventually, inspiration will strike, and he will see how the wood can be used for this animal or that.

“Most of the time,” he explained, “I'm just inspired by the wood and nothing more.”

Rush explained that he looks at what is unique to a particular piece of wood and once he identifies that, he uses that unique characteristic to highlight the beauty within the sculpture.

He does most of his work with just two tools, a four-inch carbide grinder and a six-inch orbital sander.

“Ninety-percent of my work is made with just those two tools,” Rush explained.

Between his full-time job and restoring his home by hand, Rush stays plenty busy, so he relishes the time that he can devote to making a wooden table or creating a special gift for a family member or friend.

Back in his shop, Bell is contemplating the stubborn metal mammal that has proven itself to be a whale of a challenge.

Bell explains that the head of the whale came together easily, and so did construction of the skeleton. But when he attempted to add the sides of the whale, the metal pieces went flying across the shop the first two times. Then, when he applied the skin to the beast, Bell found out that the proportions weren't how he wanted them to be. That took some extra time to correct.

Some projects will be difficult, like the whale, but others just seem to come together naturally.

The eagle that Bell has made for the wildlife show at the Delaware Museum of Natural History is impressively intricate, with approximately 400 individual feathers. It stands 18 inches tall and is 12 inches wide, and even though it took more than 80 hours of work it came together very easily. Unlike that whale.

“I'm very proud of the eagle, but the whale has tried my patience,” Bell said, grinning.

He's going to be working on shells, an octopus, a stingray and more for the upcoming show. Bell likes the challenge of these pieces of art inspired by wildlife.

“I like the abstract,” he explained, “but there's so much more of a challenge to real life.”

To contact Staff Writer Steven Hoffman, email [email protected].

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