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INTERVIEW: Lisa Bell Wilson, Daughter of Artist John Bell Jr.

Updated: May 9

Lisa Bell Wilson

Red Engine Press has published Can you See my Dust? by Lisa Bell Wilson. It tells about her father, Fort Smith artist John Bell Jr., his life as an artist and advocacy for the disabled. It also shows a man who took on his own disability and didn’t let it stop his success.

Lisa gave these excellent answers to the questions we asked.

What do you think is the most inspiring part of your father’s story?


The most inspiring part of the John Bell Jr. story is the one about the abandoned building he was trapped in. This inspires me because it details his great desire for independence and outlines the very literal physical struggle, he faced every day. In the story, he said that what made it possible for him to overcome entrapment in that building was wanting to be there to provide for his family. The fact that he wrote this one down in long hand underscores the importance of the story to him.

Who designed your book cover?


Joyce Faulkner designed the book cover. I think it looks really nice.


Who did your editing?


Initially, I planned to self-publish the book, or just mail copies of the manuscript to my family in a binder clip. Julie Moncrief of the Regional Art Museum reviewed my manuscript and gave me some layout and editing ideas. I revised the book based on her recommendations. Then the book was finished. I was connected to Joyce and John Faulkner through Julie Moncrief and my High School Classmate Tom Wing. I was happy that they liked the book and were interested in publishing it. Joyce and John helped with final editing.


Did you do research for the book? If so, where? Did you have help?


I own boxes and notebooks and scrapbooks full of pictures, newspaper articles, copies of the governor’s proclamations and letters to senators and other items which document the life and times of the John Bell Jr. family. To research the book, I looked through all of this material.  I talked to friends and family about their memories. I drove to Fayetteville to investigate the places my parents lived while in attendance to the University of Arkansas. The photos in the book came from the large collection of photos belonging to my mother and my grandmother over the years. Some of the older photos were damaged and crumbling and had been torn from one photo album and stuck into another one. My friends Tina and Keith Bright own a photo business called Home Video Studio. They helped restore some of the damaged photos for me to use.


Where did the photos come from in the book?


The photos in the book came from the large collection of photos belonging to my mother and my grandmother. Some of the older photos were damaged and crumbling and had been torn from one photo album and stuck into another one. My friends Tina and Keith Bright own a photo business called Home Video Studio in Lowell. They helped restore some of the damaged photos for me to use.


Where are your father’s sketches and notes from his work?


The notes and sketches from Dad’s work are mostly in the possession of the Regional Art Museum in Fort Smith as part of the donation made in 2020. I have a few items kept for myself and our family.


Where did your title come from?


A family holiday tradition most treasured was playing games and listening to Dad’s stories. One holiday many years ago someone said, “We have to write these stories down in a book!” Then Uncle Bill Kropp said, “I know the title! It would be “Can You See My Dust”. He referred to the story Dad told of him as a boy when he had to crawl to get places. For years after that night Dad was encouraged to write his stories. Over the years mom gave Dad a cassette tape recorder, later a Dictaphone and then bought the dragon transcription software for the computer. None of those did Dad use. After he passed away, I found a spiral notebook containing his story about the abandoned building handwritten in pencil.


Your mother was a major figure in the book. Tell us about her.


My mother was born Maxine Tincher to Lucille Skinner Tincher and Arthur Tincher in January 1943. Grandma Tincher ran a cafe. Grandpa Tincher was mostly absent leaving Grandma to provide for the children. Mother was the fourth born of nine children. She and her brother Charles contracted polio in 1950. They were taken to Little Rock and treated at Arkansas Children’s Hospital. She described being totally paralyzed and gradually gaining back the use of her upper body. I have a newspaper article from 1951 showing Mother, who was the poster child for the March of Dimes, turning the switch to light the Arkansas State Capitol tree for Christmas.


Since Mother could not get into the school due to accessibility issues, she was home schooled for some time. She cared for her younger brother and sister while Grandma was working. She met dad while attending grade school, and their paths crossed more than once. They started dating when Dad and his friends came to Grandma Tincher’s café regularly to hang out. They married in 1962, and Mother moved in with Dad at the University of Arkansas. I was born three years later in 1965. Mother spent several days in the hospital after I was born. She wanted to go home, so she lied to the doctor and told him that she had help at home.


Mother was a homemaker for several years caring for me and Dad. She enjoyed playing any kind of table game, sewing, and researching her family history. When I went to college, Mother went to work to help me pay for it. She worked for the Community Clearinghouse of Fort Smith, giving out food boxes. Later she got a job with the Literacy Council of Fort Smith, coordinating the English as a second language program. She helped Dad with his artwork business and helped him with tasks he was unable to do for himself. After his death she continued to run his artwork business and work for the Literacy Council for about four years. She retired in 2017. She passed away in 2018. Mother was the most generous and caring person I have ever met.


Tell us an experience with your mother.


Maxine Bell was a practical joker. This joke had been making rounds in the family for years, and Mother had pulled it on everyone. My daughter Jessie, who had just started college at UAFS, was the next subject. Jessie heard the legend her whole life and was eager to find out the truth about the mysterious grave. The story was that there is a grave in a cemetery on Lexington Avenue that was special. What happened is that a person went to the grave, walked around it three times saying, “Old man, Old Man, what are you doing there?” After the third time around the person stopped at the foot of his grave and listened. Then the man in the grave would say, “Nothing at all.”


I travelled to Fort Smith with a plan to go to the cemetery with Mother to choose the right grave to use for the initiation of my first and only child. The plan was to choose a good spot, then ride through a fast-food establishment and go home to eat. The event with Jessie was to take place the next night.


Mother and I got in her handicapped equipped GMC Van and headed over to the cemetery, which was not far from Mother’s house. It was getting dark. She stopped the van on one of the little roads in the cemetery where she had enough room to let down her wheelchair lift. We got out of the van, and I followed her in her wheelchair down the cemetery street and around a curve. We looked things over to choose a grave with a nice big stone that was not too far from the road. Then we headed back to the van in full dark. We failed to realize that we were both creeped out about being in the cemetery at night.


Mom got to the van, rolled onto the wheelchair lift, raised it level with the van floor, and rolled into the van. I hopped in the passenger seat. Mom started the van and rolled forward. We heard a loud grinding sound. She stopped and said, “WHAT IS THAT?” I said, “I DON’T KNOW!” So,she moved forward again, and we heard that horrible sound again. I told her I would get out to check and see what was going on. She said, “NO! Don’t get out!” I said, “I have to get out if I’m going to find out what it is.” I stepped out of the van and looked behind it. I saw that Mom had not folded up the wheelchair lift. The lift was against a little rock wall encircling someone’s grave site. When she moved the van, the lift scraped on that wall making the sound. I jumped back in and said, “Mom! You have to fold up the lift!” She folded up the lift and we drove out of there headed to Wendy’s. When we arrived at the house, we found that mom had folded up the lift, but she never closed the van doors. That explained the frosty air in the van. We ate our dinner and decided it was a good night to open a bottle of wine. We vowed not to make the same mistakes the next night when Jessie was with us.


John Bell Jr. with a young Lisa

Tell us about a specific experience with your dad.


Dad loved to have the house all decorated for Christmas. When I was small, I remember getting to climb on Dad’s shoulders. He would ride me into the living room to see the Christmas tree and my toys. Back then, I was small enough that my foot would go into his shirt pocket when I sat up on his shoulders. It was so much fun!


Did you have other family members who helped you as you grew up?


Our family was helped many times by Dad’s sister’s family Bill and Lillian Kropp. I remember them taking us in one time when our rent house was struck by lightening and burned to be unlivable. Dad’s brother Jim came to the rescue for the repair of wheelchairs and golf carts and house roofs. Dad also stayed in connection with other people in town who used wheelchairs for help with wheelchair and other equipment repair when needed. This network of wheelchair users was useful to many disabled people. This was when a person could do repair work on wheelchairs and such equipment. It all got more computerized and complicated over the years just like cars have.


Tell us about your father’s art. How did he work?


Dad’s career evolved over the years with him working in many jobs. He used oil-based paints and paintbrushes made from horsehair. He always used a drafting table with drafting tools. He did research for the work using old postcards and photos from books. He collected model cars, horses, and other items which he could use as models for his paintings. He often used paint brushes with long handles which were easy for him to manipulate. Sometimes he turned the canvas over to help him reach the whole canvas if the piece was large. This meant his pieces may be painted upside down. He also enlisted friends and family to take pictures of research purposes to allow him to know what a place looks like in the current time. He wanted his work to be as historically accurate as possible.


Dad’s early work consisted of anything he could do to pay the bills. He did many family portraits and taught art lessons. Portraits were not his favorite type of work because he said he felt confined to producing a piece of work which was quite the same as a photograph. Later in his career he said he could be choosier about the work he did. He expanded his home studio and worked on two paintings at the same time. He enjoyed doing the landscape style pieces because he said those offered more artistic freedom than the pieces featuring buildings that had to be rendered architecturally.  


Following the death of my Mother I ran the family art business for about two years. In 2020 I donated the artwork, some of his awards, and sketches or ‘studies’ to the Regional Art Museum in Fort Smith. Principally I did this because his guiding principle was that artwork was to be for the people. He said that when someone buys a piece of artwork and keeps it in their home everyone loses out because only a very small number of people get a chance to experience that artwork.  I knew his artwork needed to be seen by people.


Your father was instrumental in helping the disabled live a better life. What did he do and belong to that helped others?


Dad’s personal background of having to fight for everything he needed motivated him to also fight for the rights of others with disabilities. In the 1970’s Dad served on the governor’sadvisory council on accessibility which led to other appointments by the Governor allowing him to effect changes. He served as president of Arkansas United Cerebral Palsy Association and chairman of the board for United Cerebral Palsy. He was appointed to the consumer advisory council for Arkansas Rehabilitation Services and served two years as president of that council. That afforded him the opportunity to help influence state services to people in Arkansas.


He was a member of the Fort Smith Jaycees. In the 1990’s he formed a group of Fort Smith Citizens with disabilities which was an advocacy group called Spokes N Folks. They organized a barrier awareness day in partnership with Westark Community College. The group coordinated efforts to gain more parking spaces for people with disabilities. This group worked to ensure the act 504 and then ADA law were followed with new building code allowing for handicapped access. They filed a lawsuit against a local restaurant forcing ADA compliance. This was the first lawsuit filed in Arkansas following the signing of the ADA by President Bush.


In the 1970s he discovered that the US and state parks were being constructed with barriers which were in violation of act 504 of the Rehabilitation act of 1973. He began a campaign to bring attention to those infractions and to bring correction to those parks and ensure that new construction was done within compliance. I have a number of letters from Dad to the US Corps of engineer’s officials to the Governor of Arkansas and state park officials to chronicle this activity. These actions helped the state and local parks systems to understand the importance of the architectural requirements of act 504 and the ADA as related to the usability of the park spaces for people with disabilities. He travelled to Washington DC several times to attend meetings in connection with the Governor’s Council on Accessibility to improve access to transportation for people with disabilities.  He also worked with state parks commissioner Polly Crews to develop an accessible cabin at Lake Catherine state park.


Tell me about yourself. Let us know what you do, your education, and what your life was like growing up in this unique, talented family.


Now that I have the benefit of retrospect, I know that growing up in this unique family was an interesting experience. I never really thought of our family as different from any other family until I entered grade school, and the other children told me we were different. They asked lots of questions, the most frequent one being, “How did your parents have you?” That is a difficult question to answer when you are seven years old.


I had many unique opportunities as the only child of John Bell Jr. trough the years. In the 1970’s Dad designed the sets for the Miss Fort Smith Pageant. I enjoyed watching the construction of the stage sets. I worked the phones for the United Cerebral Palsy Telethon and got to stay up all night. I was introduced to some local celebrities during the telethon. It was all a cool experience. I attended many Fort Smith events including Civic Center Honors Awards ceremonies where Dad was nominated for his work to increase tourism. I attended many John Bell Jr. art shows and met lots of interesting people who attended. When I was small, I really enjoyed going with Dad to his model railroad meetings and getting to help on the construction. I was small enough to climb up on the models and help construct scenery. Those model railroad guys were all really nice people.


In 1979 we moved and I changed schools. That was the year the Southwest Times Record wrote an article about our family with pictures of us at the grocery store, headed down the street, and playing games at the dining table. The article was titled: “Handicapped Man fulfills Dream to be Independent.” This was a really nice article;however, I was totally embarrassed because I was 14 and everything was embarrassing. So, I was not only the new kid, but the one in the newspaper article. I got over the huge embarrassment. Later when I had started college, I was coming home to visit for the first time. I remember coming into town and seeing huge banners around town with pictures of my father on them sporting a salt and pepper beard. The banners said, “John Bell Jr. Back to School Party”. It was an event for United Cerebral Palsy. I was thinking, “What is Dad up to now, and when did he grow a beard?” He was preparing for a trip to Colorado with this railroad model club friends and they had all decided not to bother shaving on that trip.


In consideration of the good, the bad and the ugly, I was not sheltered much from the struggles experienced by my parents. Barriers to employment and architectural access were a real thing. When I started school in 1971 Mom wanted to get a job. She signed up with the State Rehabilitation Agency whose job was to help disabled people find employment. Her Rehabilitation Counselor said, “Maxine, there are just not any jobs out there for people like you.” She did get a job on her own, but it was several years later.

I was there when my parents’ confronted city and state officials about buildings which were being constructed with design features creating inaccessibility. Then, Dad was President of United Cerebral Palsy, and a member of the State Advisory Council on Developmental Disabilities. The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 was passed, and he wanted to make sure the law was followed. I have a copy of a Southwest Times Record article about Dad’s activities entitled, “World of Brick Walls” Showing pictures of Dad in his wheelchair at the sites of buildings going up with steps and curbs creating barriers.


Later, our family became frequent visitors to the State and Corps of Engineers parks. I will never forget picnicking with my parents and my cousin Billy Kropp, who was a new lawyer, at one of the corps of engineer’s parks which was being remodeled to include some unnecessary barriers. A park ranger came angrily toward our table to confront us about a landscape timber we had removed to allow wheelchair access to the picnic area where we liked to go. He said, “You people can’t be over here! We have places for you people over on the other side of the park!” He did become educated about act 504, ADA and other related issues. His invitation for us to call his boss was accepted, and the park design was reconfigured as a result.


All of these experiences led me on my path to become a Vocational Rehabilitation Counselor. Young and not sure what I wanted to do with myself, I stumbled on a degree at Arkansas Tech University at Russellville in Vocational Rehabilitation Science. I looked over the course requirements and thought that was definitely what I needed to do. What is interesting is that, for my final internship I worked for the Hot Springs Rehabilitation Center. This was the same spot where Dad completed his practice teaching for his degree. I completed that degree, got married and moved to Little Rock. I worked for a year, and then enrolled at University of Arkansas at Little Rock gaining a master’s degree in education. My first job was as a counselor at a training facility for the blind and visually impaired in Little Rock called Lions World Services for the Blind. I worked for them for about six years. Then I began a career working for the State of Arkansas in both the Rehabilitation Services units for the Blind and for the general State Rehabilitation agency. I worked for the State for 27 years, helping disabled Arkansans with training, advocacy, and job placement. Every day I remember the man in the same job description who told my mother there were no jobs for people like her. I have been able to serve on some of the same committees that Dad served on, such as the Governor’s Council on People with Disabilities.

In June I began working for the Central Arkansas Veterans Healthcare System. I still work as a vocational rehabilitation counselor; however, I am honored to help our veterans. I know that my lifelong exposure to issues faced by people with disabilities was great preparation for the career I have. Do I believe that my background and my career choice were a plan designed by a higher power? Yes, I do. No question about it.








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