Children of Catholic art genre carrying on the family tradition
Story by Bill Brewer
Photography by Stephanie Richer
When Clorinda Galdos Bell presses her intricately woven paint brush against a canvas, she’s illustrating her faith for all to see.
It’s her vocation, her charism, her ministry. Will it be her son’s, too?
And although she still describes herself as a student of the unique Cuzco style of painting that dates to the 16th century, she now is teaching that gift to her son, Benjamin, who, as an 11-year-old, shows the same artistic aptitude expressed by his mom, his uncles, his grandfather, and his great-grandfather.
It’s a rare talent that blends the spiritual beauty of God, Jesus, the Blessed Mother, the Holy Family, angels, and the saints with the beauty of the artistic style of the Cuzco movement, which is defined by the predominance of red, yellow, and earth colors; the liberal use of gold leaf; and dramatic imagery.
Mrs. Bell’s Catholic faith is at the heart of every authentic Cuzco image she paints. And her love of Christianity radiates as her oils dry on the canvas.
“The type of art I’m doing is not just art, it’s sharing the love of God. This is my ministry and how I pass my faith on to other people,” Mrs. Bell said.
She has done other artwork outside the style native to her Peruvian home, but that isn’t where her inspiration lies. Her muse is decidedly spiritual; in fact, it is the Holy Spirit.
“My preference is to keep the art religious and in the Cuzco style. My hope is to reach young people and help new generations to know about God and His wonderful love,” the 47-year-old artist said.
She knows she is reaching one young person in particular — her son, who is a sixth-grader at St. Mary School in Oak Ridge.
Mrs. Bell was Benjamin’s age when she began practicing with brushes and oil colors. For years before that, she said her mother would have to cajole her into paying attention during Mass because her eyes were always drawn to the paintings in their Cuzco Catholic church.
“I think so,” Mrs. Bell said. “He has a good touch with the brush. And that’s not something that can necessarily be taught.”
Clorinda and her husband, Aaron Bell, first noticed a possible artistic flair in Benjamin when he was just 30 months old. Mrs. Bell set up an easel and Benjamin spent two-and-a-half hours straight with it.
“I had to remove him from the easel to eat, and he was not happy,” she recalled. “That’s also about the time we saw he could read. He could read the names of cars without knowing them. He was also reading in Spanish.”
Mr. and Mrs. Bell are careful not to drive Benjamin toward art, instead letting instinct and curiosity take the lead. That strategy seems to be working.
“I never pushed him to paint with me. He never touched my brushes or oils. But he would play in my studio with his toys. Then he would ask to paint. Then when COVID-19 hit, he was learning remotely from home and had art homework to do. The art teacher, Cathy Lowden, sent us the homework, and he was so excited to do it,” Mrs. Bell said.
Mr. Bell added, “He gets A-pluses in art at school. He also does well in his Spanish class.”
Mr. and Mrs. Bell are content to place their son’s future in the hands of the Holy Spirit, just as theirs was.
“What I’m hoping is to let God guide him. If he wants to continue this tradition, I can help him. It would be wonderful. But if he wants to pursue other interests, I will respect that. And if he wants to continue showing interest, I will teach him,” she said.
“It all depends on what God wants him to do,” Mr. Bell noted.
Benjamin has a painting called “Hidden Numbers” hanging on a wall in his room that he did when he was 3 years old. He even signed it. Other paintings also hanging in his room were homework assignments.
He proudly displays them above his desk that is adorned with Lego creations and Pokémon cards. In addition to still-life images of fruit and geometric figures, there is a color drawing of Jesus that foreshadows paintings to come.
He shows a knack for shapes and colors, and offers a glimpse of detail so prevalent in his mother’s images. The Cuzco style and his mother’s subtle influence are already apparent. He already knows that he prefers oils to watercolors.
“Mom prevented me from making bad decisions on my colors. I got lucky,” Benjamin said as he distinguished his elementary school works of art. “I like the strawberry the most. Two days after my birthday, I decided to finish the strawberry. It was before the virus came.”
His art teacher at St. Mary School encourages his interest in painting and even highlighted his paintings on a slideshow shown to the St. Mary student body.
When asked about the Cuzco style of painting his mother’s family has adopted and practiced to perfect, Benjamin says he might follow in the footsteps of his mom, uncles, and grandfather.
But there is competition for his interest. He also plays soccer in the fall and spring, is on a swim team in the summer, and plays basketball during the winter.
And he likes to shoot target practice with his dad, who is a security officer with the Department of Energy facilities in Oak Ridge and shoots firearms competitively in his spare time.
Mr. and Mrs. Bell are watching with curiosity — and patience — their son’s artistic development, content in the fact there’s a good chance the authentic Cuzco style will continue in the Galdos lineage.
“They [Clorinda’s family members] are very proud, especially my mother. They’re also very supportive. My mom says, ‘Don’t push him. Let him work at his own pace.’ That’s what I’m doing,” Mrs. Bell said.
She recalls that while she showed an aptitude for painting at an early age, her father discouraged her interest. But her persistence eventually overcame his opposition, and he reluctantly began working with her, developing her skills as a Cuzco artist. She also learned by watching her brothers. Her father died when she was 13, so she had to continue without his tutelage. But continue — and improve — she did.
Her early influences were Bernardo Bitti, an Italian Jesuit priest and painter who founded the Cuzco style in Peru, and Diego Quispe Tito, a Peruvian painter and leader of the Cuzco movement.
“I saw their art and they inspired me,” she said, noting that while it was easy for her to learn the Cuzco style, her father preferred that she have a profession or become a nun.
“I had such strong emotions to paint. With-out knowing how to use brushes or mix oils, I started to paint. My dad was very impressed. Finally, I was able to get out what I had been feeling,” she added. “I was 13 when he died. After he died, most of the time I learned from my mistakes. I’m still learning, and every day is a learning process.”
While taking a passive approach to working with her son, Mrs. Bell would be overjoyed if her family’s legacy carried on with Benjamin. But unlike her father, she will not try to dissuade her child from painting.
In the meantime, Mr. and Mrs. Bell will gently nurture any interest Benjamin has and let nature — and the Holy Spirit — take their course.
The young man will have an accomplished role model to follow.
Mrs. Bell’s intricately detailed works of art have a feel and appearance of a relief painting, with the images almost rising from the surface. She has spent most every day of the last 36 years trying to perfect her craft.
It has long since progressed beyond a hobby. As she makes a name for herself and her faith, her signature paintings are growing in demand, and she earns a modest living from their sales.
And they’re attracting attention.
The Tennessee Art Commission has featured her works with an exhibit in Nashville. Also in Nashville, her painting “Asuncion de Maria al Cielo,” or the “Assumption of Mary to Heaven,” is hanging in the Dominican Sisters of St. Ce-cilia motherhouse. Two others are hanging in the Dominican convent chapel and in a retreat house. The Dominican Sisters also featured Mrs. Bell’s artwork in a book, and Catholic Extension featured her paintings on the organization’s 2017 national calendar.
Mr. Bell noted that Bishop David R. Cho-by, who died in 2017, commissioned several pieces of Mrs. Bell’s artwork for the Diocese of Nashville’s Catholic Pastoral Center.
One of her paintings is in a collection at East Tennessee State University.
And EWTN featured Mrs. Bell and her artistry on the program “Nuestra Fe en Vivo,” or “Our Faith in Life,” in 2018, which was seen by a worldwide audience.
As her work attracts more attention, requests for commissioned pieces have been on the rise. Mrs. Bell paints several works of art each year, ranging in size from 4 by 8 inches to 36 by 48 inches. She even was commissioned to complete a painting that was 6 by 8 feet.
“I see the difference in my painting each time. I’m getting better,” she said, noting that she is working more with gold leaf. “For me, being an artist is learning every day.”
Mrs. Bell is careful to stay true to the Cuzco school. She warned there are many imitators of the style who take advantage of cheaper materials and techniques to mass produce in-expensive, unsigned copies.
She guarantees the authenticity of her work by signing each painting, a trademark of genuine Cuzco artwork.
“I’m very careful what I use. I use only the best oils and brushes. This is not a hobby. It’s a feeling when I do my art like when you wake up in the morning and you want to see and be with that special someone you have met,” Mrs. Bell said in a message to people who might be interested in her art.
“They just need to understand that my painting will not be a copy. It will be my style,” she added. “There are few artists doing quality Cuzco-style artwork with the passion and blessing of God that is required.”
Of all the assets she relies on to be a successful artist, her most important is her husband, who has learned to speak Spanish fluently.
In fact, her artwork is how they first met in February 2004. Mr. Bell was serving in the Coast Guard and, upon the recommendation of friends, was visiting Peru. He was touring the art district of Cuzco and happened into the gallery where Miss Galdos was working.
At that time, Miss Galdos and her paintings were in demand in Brazil, and she was preparing to open a gallery there. She and her brothers held a Brazil exhibition, and it sold out.
After a long-distance relationship, she instead relocated to East Tennessee, and they married in September 2006. Her family in Cuzco couldn’t attend the wedding, so in February 2008 they were married in the Catholic Basilica of La Merced in Cuzco, where her family could attend.
Since those earliest days of their relationship, Mrs. Bell said her husband has backed her artwork faithfully.
“Aaron supports me a lot. He supports me in using the expensive materials I need for my paintings. I get a lot of support from him,” Mrs. Bell said, describing how their marriage is a partnership, and her art, while very important, isn’t her first priority. “I am a mom, a wife, a housekeeper, and an artist.”
While Mrs. Bell credits her husband with lovingly supporting her ministry, he credits her with introducing him to the Catholic faith.
Mr. Bell, the son of a Protestant minister in Greenback, wanted to know more about his wife’s faith after watching her dedication to Catholicism, so he attended RCIA classes at St. Mary Church in Oak Ridge.
“I wanted to let them tell me what they believe and why. In that process I learned what Clorinda believes. It was a learning process for both of us,” Mr. Bell said. “It’s been a huge learning experience, having to learn her art, having to learn her language, and having to learn her faith.
“When you surround yourself with beauty and reminders of faith, it reinforces what you believe. We have constant reminders in our house. Because her ministry is so beautiful, it becomes a common goal to share it with others,” he added.
Mr. Bell believes their faith in the Holy Spirit and the Holy Family has led to miracles through Mrs. Bell’s art. He’s confident his conversion to Catholicism is one of them.
He said his wife’s art crosses denomination-al boundaries, noting that a woman at First Presbyterian Church of Greenback, where Mr. Bell’s father formerly pastored before retiring, commissioned a painting of Jesus and the children. Once his wife delivered the painting, the Presbyterian congregation made a prayer box to accompany the painting, and now prayers are submitted to the box with Mrs. Bell’s artwork.
“When she (the Presbyterian woman who commissioned the painting) first saw it, she cried. That is not uncommon. People do cry when they see her work,” Mr. Bell said. “It’s not just a Catholic painting. It’s a Christian painting. It’s universal.”
That is a reaction Mrs. Bell hopes to elicit when delivering a painting. She hopes her son will get to experience that same emotion someday.
“That’s exactly what I want for my art — to touch people, even if they aren’t Catholic,” she said. “Always, every day, I’m working in my studio. I know my paintings will touch someone. I prefer to do this kind of art. It’s important to me to share my faith.”