Craig Hanlon-Smith spends an afternoon with local artist Mackenzie Bell.
A saunter through Brighton’s magnificent Clifton Conservation Area is in many ways akin to stepping into a painting. The uninterrupted sunlight intensely throwing its reflection back into the air as it bounces off the immaculately maintained white houses. Were it not for the hotchpotch of poorly chosen vehicles scattered around its streets like misshapen beach pebbles cast ashore following a sea storm, you would be forgiven for believing you had been transported to Lyme Regis in Jane Austen’s era.
And it’s this local architectural beauty that Mackenzie Bell and I first discuss when he opens the door and beams at me with the same intensity as the sunlight. His house is beautiful and I tell him so. “Thank you,” he returns, “I’ve done an awful lot to it over the past 30 years.”
I try not to be lured into a welcome coma by the delicate lullaby of the water feature whispering to me through the open kitchen door. Before long we’re discussing hair (of course) and his ill-fated trip to the same Harley Street follicle specialist as Wayne Rooney. “He said to me ‘do you want the bad news first or the good news?’, I told him to give me the bad news to which he replied; ‘Well the bad news is your hair’s too thin, I can do nothing for you. The good news is, that bad news will save you £14,000’.”
My afternoon with Mackenzie is actually to find out more about his upcoming exhibition as part of the Brighton Artists’ Open Houses, but not before he decorates the kitchen table with pastries. “You’re not one of these on a diet are you?”, and then showers me with coffee as I ignore his suggestion of wine, although I am tempted.
“The exhibition is all new work, paintings I’ve been working on for the past five years. I didn’t want to show you too much today…”, he says before hurriedly rushing into the living room only to return with an array of canvases that he lavishes across the kitchen floor as if Jackson Pollock excitedly at work in his studio. His energy and enthusiasm is as fascinating to behold as it is infectious and I feel a sense of privilege at my private viewing as he talks and walks me through each piece, its technique and textures.
“I’m inspired at the most unexpected of moments,” he adds as he teases and shifts his paintings around the floor as if planning the exhibition at this very moment. “This one came from being in a bubble bath and observing how the bubbles evolved and disappeared before me.”
I ask if these works will be featured in the upcoming collection?
“Oh yes,” he enthuses as he points out his use of gold leaf on the more recent works, “I like to use older, almost forgotten techniques but within a contemporary more abstract piece.” Each of the works that I see is certainly arresting and it’s fascinating to see the prolific nature of piece after piece exploring the same themes but from a different angle.
Mackenzie has lived through a varied series of careers including crewing aboard transatlantic liners Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, managing the Zwemmer Gallery in London and working for an antique dealer in San Francisco. He has taught art across the world from Los Angeles to Sydney but most notably at St Paul’s College, Sussex. Upon retiring from teaching in 1998, he started up a landscape garden design company in his words ‘sculpting’ with plants. He now paints full-time.
“I loved teaching but I gave all my creativity away to my students and at the end of term I was so drained there was nothing left for me. I never produced my own work. I never even wanted to pick up a paintbrush let alone even look at art. It took three years after leaving teaching to feel sufficiently re-charged to start painting again.”
Shortly after leaving his teaching career behind, Mackenzie moved to Cornwall, where with his then partner, and through his love for landscape garden design, they created the Northwood Water Gardens together on the edge of Bodmin Moor. “The fun in creating Northwood was the process. We built lakes with islands and mini sculpture parks on the islands. We planted 1,500 trees and shrubs but once we were open to the public, my role became one of maintenance and hosting. Eventually we closed the gardens to the public although we intend to open again in the future for charity events.”
I ask Mackenzie if his eye for landscape design makes him a nightmare guest at summer garden parties? He laughs and confesses; “I do have to bite my tongue, otherwise I’d end up rearranging everyone’s garden, furniture and paintings.” So not just their outside spaces then? “No! All of it. I get so frustrated when I see paintings hung so high in people’s houses that you have to look up at them as something to be revered. They should be in your eye-line, they’re to be appreciated not lifted up on some imagined pedestal.”
Mackenzie lived in Cornwall for 10 years but five years ago met his new partner and returned to the house in Brighton where I’m now inhaling my second pastry of the afternoon. “Leaving [Cornwall] was sad in a way but I missed the vibrancy of Brighton’s art and gay scene.”
Mackenzie’s early life began in South Devon, studying fine art at Exeter College of Art, before moving to London to study at Central St Martins. “And this was one of the most depressing times of my life, studying at this most prestigious establishment. I was confused and wrestling in coming to terms with my sexuality and literally moving from one bedsit to another every month,” he says as our afternoon together draws to a close and I make to leave. His eyes lock mine in such a way that not only do I believe him, I am rooted to the spot. “Homosexuality was illegal, I was not free to be myself.” And I’m genuinely moved by not only his story, but his sharing of his explosion of creative freedom in his works which are still scattered across the floor.
As I leave Mackenzie to the rest of his afternoon, I think of something he told me about his life immediately after his career in education: “You have to understand that when I started teaching at St Paul’s in Sussex, the world was a very different place. Although it was an open secret, I could easily have been fired for being gay and when I left in the late 1990s, I felt as though I’d carried this like an oak yoke heavy around my shoulders. From that point on, every new person I’ve met I’ve said to them ‘I am a gay man’. It wasn’t until then that I felt free to be my own person again.”
Artists’ Open Houses
Mackenzie Bell’s exhibition is part of the Artists’ Open Houses, open May bank holiday weekend, Saturday 27 to Monday 29, 12-6pm at Venue One on Seven Dials trail: 1 Victoria Place, Brighton, BN1 3FR.
10% of all painting sales will be donated to the Rainbow Fund.