by Jane R. Snyder

When eight-year-old Karen Bell came home from school with tiny snakes in her pockets, her mother simply picked the reptiles up by their tails, carried them from her laundry room, and deposited them back into the garden. An understanding parent, she knew her curious child wouldn’t stop exploring Wisconsin’s woods and creeks. Collectors of Karen’s extraordinary sculptures are very grateful that her mom didn’t scare easily.

Pond Habitat

Pond Habitat with Pickerel Frogs, 2013, High Fire Stoneware clay, 5” x 12” x 12”

At last October’s 2015 Fall Tennessee Craft Fair in Centennial Park, Karen was selected as Nashville Arts Best of Show exhibitor for her hand-built, High Fire Stoneware which replicates flora, fauna, insects, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals. This was not the first award for this talented sculptor who served as president of the Madison [Wisconsin] Potter’s Guild for almost twenty years before she relinquished that position in 2011.

Endless curiosity still drives Karen Bell, whether she is turning over a rock to see what lies beneath it or gathering leaves to model for her life-size pieces that incorporate ladybugs, caterpillars, moths, butterflies, cicadas, or lizards. She decorates her unique vessels, bowls, trays, and plates with a colorful population of dragonflies, frogs, turtles, snakes, and iguanas. Admirers are often surprised to find “multiple critters or entire life cycles or ecosystems of a particular specie or subspecie” on the imaginative pieces Karen creates with passionate precision. Cleverly positioned in a grassy corner of her display booth, one such work tempted visitors to reach down to pet the colorful turtle.

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Blue Iguanas on a Bowl, 2015, High Fire Stoneware clay, 8” x 14” x 16”

Her three-dimensional portraits of bats, chameleons, turtles, alligators, crocodiles, and armadillos accurately reflect those found in Wisconsin or Arizona, where Karen and her husband, Lance, spend their winter months. She is a meticulous researcher with an enviable library of books and reference material in her Spring Green, Wisconsin, studio, and her glazes and anatomical details are as accurate as natural-history textbooks. Even a blue-spotted salamander she found under her studio’s doormat eventually wound up recreated in clay.

“I fire at a little over 2,300 degrees in a reduction atmosphere, which makes everything a little toasty; it makes everything warm. With reptiles, they depend on details so much. My solution is to use underglazes and re-fire my pieces so I get the best of the high-fire reduction and the low-fire detailing and color.”

When asked if her ideas first take shape on paper, the sculptor shared her approach. “I’ve never been a two-dimensional person at all. I do sometimes make sketches, but I found that those pieces don’t work very well because it’s better if I just let the work flow from my fingers right into the clay.”

frogs on a Lily Pad

Leap Frogs on a Lily Pad, High Fire Stoneware clay, 7” x 8” x 10”

A determined problem-solver, she has adapted elements such as feathers or animal whiskers to represent fuzz on a caterpillar or delicate antennae on insects. If you ask Karen an offbeat question, you’ll discover that her knowledge of the natural world is vast and filled with esoteric details that make her work so compelling. She often builds miniature tools or fashions tiny brushes in order to guarantee a realistic portrayal.

“I’ve never been a two-dimensional person at all.”

Look closely and you can see why her process often moves slowly. “One day before I broke for lunch, I asked myself, what did I do today, and the answer was, I glazed five caterpillars!” Her childlike excitement is rampant and embedded in every piece she will eventually present to the public.

Karen began to exhibit her work at Midwest shows in the mid 80s, but now she travels nationwide to display her work. Such wide exposure, from coast to coast and as far south as Key West, Florida, has enabled her creatures to find their place in private collections around the globe.

“Many tourists from the Orient, where intricate ceramic work is highly treasured, buy my pieces, then they fly home and direct their friends to my website. That’s a huge compliment.”

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3 Toed Box Turtle, 2015, High Fire Stoneware clay, 5” x 6” x 9”

One exuberant fan, who actually added an extension onto his residence to house his collection of her sculpture, calls this dedicated space “the Karen Bell Room.” He has already told Karen that he will bequeath her works to a local museum so they can continue to excite art lovers once he isn’t around to enjoy them himself.

As she watches another collector carry his purchase away, it isn’t easy for Karen to let her “critters” go. But knowing that another one has found a good home will always widen her smile.

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