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Exhibit showcases hand-lettered commercial products

November  11, 2011

'By Hand' exhibition of commercial art, by Les Bell
(Augustana Photo Bureau/Marla Alvarado Neuerburg)

The items in the Thomas Tredway Library's new exhibit, “By Hand: A Collection of Commercial Lettering and Illustration from the 1920s to the 1940s,” are but a small part of Leslie Bell’s collection of decorative commercial products.

Ranging from boxes of toys to laundry powder, these items display methods of hand lettering and simple illustration that survived until the 1940s before they were eclipsed by photographic imagery and typography.

An opening reception will be held from 4:30-5:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at the library. The free exhibit, on the second floor, runs through Dec. 16.

An artist and a professor of art at St. Ambrose University, Bell was inspired to collect these types of commercial products by three life experiences: his studies of letterforms with Father Edward Catich at St. Ambrose College in the 1960s; his early career as an illustrator; and his days as a rock musician and poster designer beginning in the 1960s.

"What interests me most is lettering that has initially been done by hand before being photographed and printed; and simple, flat-color illustration," Bell writes in his artist's statement. "The combination of these two forms of graphic expression in America reached their peak in the time spanning the stock market crash to the beginning of World War II. Later, as photographic imagery supplanted illustration as the most common commercial visual and as typography eclipsed hand lettering, much of commercial advertising and packaging, at least for me, lost its appeal."

In addition to the hand lettering, Bell appreciates the quality and methodology of the printing from the 1920s to 1940s. "The ink — usually custom-mixed color — is thick and unusually saturated," he said. "The mood is optimistic and un-ironic."

Bell came to the Midwest in 1965 to study art at St. Ambrose with Father Catich, a world-renowned calligrapher, epigrapher, graphic designer, trombone player and magician. Bell earned his bachelor’s degree there in 1972. He received a master’s degree in painting in 1976 from Northern Illinois University, DeKalb.

His artwork has been displayed in one-person shows at many university galleries from coast to coast and has been represented in galleries in Chicago, Atlanta, Tampa, Des Moines and the Quad Cities. His figurative work of 20 years tells stories of love, education, longing and nature.

Bell’s awards include a fellowship in painting from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Special Recognition Award — best in painting — from the Des Moines Art Center in Iowa Artists, two first-prize and purchase awards from the Figge Art Museum, and grants from the Iowa Arts Council and Quad City Arts.

Sam Schlouch
Senior Communication Director
(309) 794-7833