My work as a writer and photographer is to create portraits of my subjects, portraits in word and image, that introduce in some measure the mystery and glory we carry as human beings. To that end, I look closely at people to understand something about the wonder of individual identity and calling. What stirs me most about Steve Bell is place he gives to the presence of the Holy Spirit to move and work through him. I don’t mean that so much in the specifically religious way that one might interpret that phrase, but more in the sense of what takes place when someone allows God’s Spirit to create through them. I don’t see that often described in mass media. It is something to acknowledge and cherish when we encounter it.
Steve is a living model of Madeleine L’Engle’s famous discussion about the role of the artist to the work of art calling for incarnation. In her book Walking on Water, Madeleine says, “I am convinced that each work of art, be it a great work of genius or something very small, has its own life, and it will come to the artist, the composer or the writer or the painter, and say, “Here I am: compose me; or write me; or paint me”; and the job of the artist is to serve the work. … If the work comes to the artist and says, “here I am, serve me,” the job of the artist, great or small, is to serve. Jean Rhys said to an interviewer in the Paris Review, “Listen to me. All of writing is a huge lake. There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. And there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.” To feed the lake is to serve ….”
In looking at and listening to Steve’s professional labour of love is to see a practiced serving of the work and feeding of the lake. The character of his personal life, if it can be so segmented, undergirds what is publicly viewed.
LES: One of the themes I see running through your life and story, as well as many other artists, is that to be heard in community is to have one the deepest needs of our being filled. That is reflected so clearly in your experience of learning to play guitar in Drumheller. And then it shows up again in your orchestral concerts. I love this story from your website about how those concerts came into being. “To Steve, this new side to his career is a happy accident. “Little good that has happened to us is because we thought of it,” he laughingly notes; “We got a call from the Winnipeg Symphony, and I assumed they wanted me to sing a Pops concert. They came back and said ‘no, we want a Steve Bell concert.’ It seemed a daunting task, but we took the risk. I hired my keyboardist, Mike Janzen, to do the scores, and the concert sold out. It was a magical evening. I remember looking out at my weeping dad in the audience. There I was onstage with the symphony and it was my music being celebrated by my community. I don’t know if I’ll ever have a higher moment than that.” “In our day and age of exaggerated individualism – symphony is a revolutionary act. The act of symphony is now countercultural. And we, in our souls, know we have lost something profound. We hear Symphony and something in us knows it’s True.” (Opening to DVD of Edmonton Symphony Concert)
LES: What do you experience when you perform with an orchestra that you do not when you perform solo or with a band, and what do you hope your audience will experience when you do an orchestra concert?
SB: I had an experience while performing with the Winnipeg Symphony that I have a hard time describing, but I’ll try. It was toward the end of a song called Deep Calls to Deep when the arrangement opens up and my piano player, Mike Janzen, takes an extended solo. Mike is an exceptional soloist and on this particular night he seemed on fire. Our eyes locked as his fingers burned up the keys. I concentrated as hard as I could on what he was doing, making sure the rhythms and responses from my fingers didn’t interfere with his soloing, but rather supported and fueled his imagination. As I was intently concentrating on what he was playing, it suddenly occurred to me that he was doing the same in return, focusing intently on my playing, pushing my imagination and fueling my fingers to respond in ways I wouldn’t have otherwise. We were both caught up in the other – in a state of “mutual othering.” It was extraordinary. Then, suddenly the whole scene froze in time and space; motionless and silent except for The Voice that whispered in my ear, “This is who I AM!” The scene quickly snapped into real time again and I almost passed out from the encounter. It was all I could do to remain upright in my chair. For weeks afterward I was an emotional rag doll with tears always just below the surface. I’ll never forget it. It is the most transcendent experience of my life
To answer your question, if these performances could in any measure pass on to audiences that encounter, I would be elated. It’s the kind of experience to don’t want to hoard.
LES: What is it that we have lost in this age of “exaggerated individualism” and is there any way to regain it?
SB: We’ve nearly lost everything. Orthodox Christian faith understands God as Triune, meaning that at the very heart of God is a dynamic relationality; a mutual-othering marked by self-donating love. It is an unspeakable calamity that modern, western Christianity has bought into the ruse of radical individualism robbing us of our very humanity created in the image of God. I believe the arts can help with a recovery of our humanity, but only if artists themselves can somehow resist the very real allure of narcissistic egoism so richly rewarded by our culture. We need saints now, perhaps more than in any other time in history. God’s people should be praying for saints.
LES: Would you expand on your thoughts in this statement? It has significant implications for community, art, and public responsibility. “Monetizing music has become quite difficult, and many independent composers like myself have had to change from being supported mostly through commercial means back to the patronage model that musicians have relied on for centuries until quite recently. The commercialization of music has been a relatively recent development (over the last half century) that produced adequate resources for some and vast resources for others. But those days are mostly gone. We now need to return to patronage on which artists have relied for most of history.”
SB: At the same time that I lament the recent collapse of the music industry, I welcome the opportunity to return to an older tradition where the artist actually had to serve the community in order to survive. With the commercialization of music came the possibility of great wealth and social independence, which has fed a woeful trend towards narcissism in the arts. We have come to think of art as the personal expression of an individual’s unique genius – smugly disinterested and detached. Attached to that is the culture of celebrity which has only fed an already bloating illness.
LES: You’ve made the comment “I always ensure that in any Steve Bell Band, I am the weakest link …. I learn like crazy and I play better when I’m around people like that. Those guys will suck the ego right out of you. You realize they’re in it for the music and the beauty of those moments.” In fact, it seems like the vast majority of your musical career has been engaged in, supported by, and underscored by processes of collaboration with others. Faye Hall, gifted painter, who works with you at Signpost Music for instance, has been inspired by your humanitarian trips abroad and her painting has been influenced by you. How are you able in music to set aside ego and need for personal recognition and let others contribute to what you are working on? Is that something that was ingrained in you since childhood or have you had to learn that? How do you see your role in contributing to the artistic work of others in different media? Is there a link to all that?
SB: I don’t think of it as a virtue really.
I’ve always known that my life is not my own, that I am not a self-made man and that “hell” is “myself.” I understand God to be an indissoluble communion of persons and that we have been made in that image. So then… human flourishing logically stems from human communion. Also, Nanci and I spent the first twenty years of our life in intentional Christian community. All my music flowed out of a common life and gave expression to those experiences, both painful and glorious.
To be perfectly frank, allowing input from others has made for better music, better poetry. And in the end, its great music and poetry that turns my crank, not merely “Steve Bell” music. So wherever that happens, I just want to be part of it in some way.
Several years ago, Nanci and I built our own house. The whole project got away on us and ended up costing significantly more than we had and we came very close to losing everything. I was telling my tale of woe to a friend who afterward gave me a check for $1000.00 saying that he just wanted “to be part of it.” The thousand dollars barely made a dent on the debt, but the gesture was enormous and I’ve never forgotten it. When I look at the great lake that is the grand, shared tradition of music and poetry, I know my contribution will be modest, but I just want to be part of it. And so, whether I’m putting out my own material, collaborating with another, or helping a young artist with a demo, it’s all feeding the lake.
Stay tuned for Part 4!
Lancia E. Smith is an author, photographer, teacher, and business owner. A grateful lover of the Triune God, Lancia is the Founder & Executive Director of Cultivating & The Cultivating Project. She has served in executive management, church leadership, boards, and Art & Faith organizations over 30 years. She & her husband Peter have parented 7 children, & have a flock of beloved grandchildren. Lancia loves garden and website design, beautiful typography, road trips, being read aloud to by Peter, & cherishes every book she ever read by C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and George MacDonald.