By Lauren Bell. Photos by Kelsie Shelton.
Having lived here during the late 60s, Debra Bell–experienced artist, jewelry maker, and mother to yours truly–walked around the streets of Denton in the sunshine of this unusually warm October, pointing out the oddities that have morphed this small town into its city-like modernity.
“Denton has always been a really far out place….but the Square was kind of square back then,” she laughed. “The Golden Triangle was just a restaurant on the square. It was kind of like a little Waffle House. That was our hangout.” Window shopping on this same Square decades later, she muses on the changes that she’s watched spring up around this little center of Denton. “In 1968, there were a lot of empty shops. It was pretty dead. It was not so much a revitalization, but more like urban decay.” Although Bell was not a student of UNT back then but rather a young bride living in Denton with her highschool sweetheart, she had begun creating art many years before. She began drawing at age 2, practiced painting through paint-by-number kits during her childhood, and when she was 12, she experimented with acrylics and ceramics. “Watercolors have been my main forte,” she said, though one could argue that she is a master of all mediums. By the time she was living in Denton, she was dabbling with oils, china painting, and stained glass.
After dining at Banter, one of the many new spots to appear over the span of the years, she mentioned how Denton used to have a few good vegetarian restaurants that were “hot to trot!” Later, passing by Big Mike’s towards Voertman’s, she threw a fun 60s fact about this favorite campus supply store: “Voertman’s carried handblown glass and handcrafts,” she revealed. “They had a little UNT section but that was it.” Surprising, but then again, of course Denton has been cool for so long. It grows apparent that Denton is still quite the same, only expanded and truly unique in almost every nook and cranny. There is a youthful, artistic culture that can only be found in this special town.
This ambience isn’t new here, according to Bell. “It was a very rich, creative culture of young people because everybody was into music and the arts,” she said. Bell was one of those young creatives of Denton, and although she has since moved from Denton to Flower Mound, TX, she hasn’t lost that rich, artistic spirit. Nowadays she mainly paints personal projects and teaches children and adults in Montessori schools and her own home and backyard, but when she was in her 30s she began handcrafting jewelry. She created her own molds for textures, firing pieces three times with 18-karat gold, and experimented with sculpey, molding the material and baking pieces in the oven. Airbrush became of great interest in creating the subtleties of color in her works, especially in the beginning of her dabblings making her own jewelry.
In 1987, she owned Lotus Studio, her jewelry business, with three representatives in Dallas, Atlanta, and both San Francisco and Los Angeles. Her Dallas rep also traveled to New York to showcase her art. Bell sold to the Front Room, the top craft gallery in Dallas around 1988. Shortly thereafter, the Dallas Museum of Art bought some of her work for their gift shop. “I had a studio located in the Screw building downtown on Routh Street,” she explained.
Such a sublime blend of passion and success stands unique in an age of typical nine-to-five breadwinners. Just as Denton has morphed on the surface while it retains its freshness and singularity, the succession from one era to another comes with the same discordances between the generations. “My generation kind of got ripped off, because all the hippies were doing was promoting the values our parents taught us in the fifties,” said Bell. “They seemed like the walking dead to us. They were not really living their lives and pursuing their dreams. Every day they just went to work. They went for the status quo.”
Bell, however, has never given up on her dreams. When asked about her artistic style, she seems discouraged as to how to explain, but she opens up regardless: “I like things that have meaning. I would describe it as personal and full of symbolism. It’s illustrated fantasy, because I don’t really paint realistically in most of my stuff.” This ‘stuff’ is the milk and honey that one drinks in just from passing through her home, that lines the walls, the shelves, and the drawers. Bell has seen this city grow from a young 60s college town to the expanding city that we love today, and as her art continues to mature as well, it is clear that she is an inspiration to all of us still in the early stages of growth, swelling with the cultivation of our city, our home.