Saying Good-bye To The Bell Museum

December 21, 2016


Above: Pen and watercolor sketch at the Bell Museum on 9 x 12 inch white Stonehenge paper. And yes Stonehenge is not a watercolor paper, but sometimes you just want to paint on what you want to paint on.

Sunday was the Urban Sketchers Twin Cities sketch out at the Bell Museum. I added the afternoon to my schedule of visits I set up when I started my “Bell Museum—13 Weeks To Say Good-Bye” project at the beginning of October.

I’ve gone so many times to sketch at the Bell over the course of my life, especially in the past 38 years when I actually lived full-time in Minneapolis, that I lose track. A few weeks ago, as part of the studio shake up, Dick helped me move all but my 2015 and 2016 journals into the back room with my other stored journals. When he had to go off and help the folks my progress slowed. I found myself looking in some of those journals I was shelving “out of the way.” It surprised me how often, in flipping through the pages, there would be a sketch that I made at the Bell. Sometimes I might just be walking across campus and take a moment to duck in and make a quick sketch. It made me smile to come across them.

Mostly at the Bell I sketch animal portraits and studies. I look at angles. I sit on the floor and look up. I sit at the side and look askance (the animals never mind.) I make notes and draw corrections right on my page. I’m working as fast as possible, treating the specimens as live—because this for me is practice for life drawing—for finding animals in the forest, on a trip, or in the neighborhood.

Going weekly (or more) to the Bell in these past several weeks I’ve realized that while some specimens won’t be making the trip to the new building on the St. Paul campus, many will. So what I’ll miss ultimately the most is the actual place, the physical space, the physical building.

I’ve had a lifetime of missing places. By the time I went to university and stopped living with my family I think we had moved 17 or 18 times. (I would have to count them up.) That includes two transPacific moves (two out and two back trips, though I was in the womb for the first out trip).

You would think with all that practice saying good-bye I would be at peace with letting go, but it wasn’t until I started this project to consciously say good-bye to the Bell that I realized I am finding this change harder than I expected—there is something of letting go of youth in this transition. (And I’ve never been one to hold on to my youth.) 

There are sights, sounds, and smells at the Bell that will always be with me. And they all have created emotional attachments in my memory. There were trips made with friends to sketch. Now some are dead and I go in part to be with them. I sit with their ghosts and we sketch together, always content with our silent, shared industry.

Somedays when I go to the Bell there is complete silence—but the silence is different from the silence one used to have years ago with the school term going on about one. There is a silence of shutting down. Other times there is the typical noise of school children, often screaming, always laughing. And always there is the sound of birdsong or animal calls (if kids are pressing buttons).

What is also constant is a quality of light (low level, about which many sketchers complain, but which I find oddly comforting and essential to the tone of wonder being set).

I’m not a painter who does interiors, but in these last few trips I’ve found myself turning away from my warm up, not to another taxidermied specimen, but to face down a hall or across a room, and see something I’ve seen 10,000 times before and think, OK, maybe that’s the thing to sketch. Because while many of the animals will be making the move, the wall color, the paneling (which seems to sigh in the heat of the summer in this unairconditioned building), the signs, the carpet—they all won’t be going. And yet we notice all these things when we focus on the exhibits. It all seeps in.

I turned on Sunday towards a view. I turned down the hall from the “Big Woods” and saw one of my favorite dioramas, the Sandhill Cranes, with its glowing signage in the paneled wall. Had I been an architect or artist who always sketches interiors I might have allowed space on my page at the left, for the recessed benches in the walls. I will miss those benches. 

As I sketched a family came up and stood at the window along the right. That’s actually the child who stood there, reduced to a rough gesture here.

Dick claims I was simply using an opportunity to include a self portrait in my Bell project. He laughed at my cunning.

At her age I didn’t wear glasses, but my hair was long and loose. People laugh to learn I only started braiding my hair in college.

As I sketched her quickly, because I thought it would be nice to have someone there for scale, it did strike me that she bent her foot up against the paneling just as I still do when I stand and sketch. There is a desire to press forward and enter that tableau. I had it at her age. She had it Sunday with her family herky-jerky around her. She stayed still, absorbed with yearning.

She was looking in at the Tundra Swans, which is such a lovely exhibit. From my perspective there was only glare and the bounced reflection of the Sandhill Cranes. 

I wondered, when I went to paint her red jacket, though she was long gone, if decades from now she would remember what it was like to be in the Bell Museum, the OLD Bell Museum, on a frigid cold day when the songbirds were still singing.

Note: The Old Bell Museum closes on December 31, 2016. You still have a few days to get over there and make some memories.

  1. Reply

    What great memories you have, hopefully, the new place will wind it’s way into your heart like the old Bell has.

    • Carol
    • December 21, 2016

    I’ll miss the old Bell so much. I was there for MetroSketchers a few weeks ago and spent much of the time standing at the large dioramas with my nose (almost) pressed against the glass – so close I felt like I was actually out in the prairies and marshes with the animals. It was wonderful.

    • Sharon Nolfi
    • December 21, 2016

    This was a beautiful post. I’m sure your enjoyment of the new Bell will be bittersweet, always enriched by your memories of the old. With respect to Strathmore, in case you haven’t heard, they now have a line of watercolor paper, and are offering free samples. See

    • Tina M Koyama
    • December 21, 2016

    I’m so happy that I had the opportunity to sketch at the Bell when I was in town in August. I don’t have the memories and associations, but Greg does, and I know it’s a very special place for many people. I’m looking forward to sketching at the new place eventually, too. It’ll be different, but at least some of the familiar animals will be there like old friends. And a new generation will discover and love the Bell.


    • Tina M Koyama
    • December 21, 2016

    P. S. What’s going to happen to the living critters during the closure? I assume the same staff will be working behind the scenes somewhere? That tarantula was fun to sketch! (I know you hate spiders…so do I, but it was safely behind glass!)

  2. Reply

    Elaine, I do have wonderful memories of the Bell (and also the Field Museum and Brookfield Zoo in Chicago, and the St. Louis Zoo, and, well I could go on and on).

    I’m not sure how I’ll feel about the new Bell, but I will give it a try. The main issue for me is that I will not be able to walk there in under 15 minutes.

    But things change.
    Thanks for reading.

  3. Reply

    Some change is huge Susan. And some change is more immense because of other recognition that occurs at the same time. I think it is a big change in my life right now, dealing with aging inlaws and seeing my changing life habits morph into new permutations. I appreciate you taking time to read and respond. Ye, it’s great to have these memories in my journals and have the potential to create new ones!!! The unending book.

  4. Reply

    Carol, I’m glad that you could join in to the sketch activities that have been happening, it’s fun to be with others who love the Bell so much. Remember that you can still enjoy the dioramas with my friend’s gigapans of them—use that search work in my blog’s search engine. You can zoom in and see ever brush stroke on the wall!

  5. Reply

    Thanks Sharon, I appreciate you taking time to read and respond. And to suggest Stonehenge’s new watercolor paper (At least I think you mean Stonehenge)—however I requested a new sample from Legion Paper recently and they sent me a note that it had been sent, but nothing arrived, so I don’t know if it was the same paper or what, but I’m none the wiser. SIGH.

  6. Reply

    Tina, I’ve seen the model and the stuff I love is migrating so I’m much more calm about things, except of course because of the whole change aspect of it and the distance—I won’t be able to walk over. It will be fun that a whole new generation gets to discover and love the Bell. I look forward to your next visit!

  7. Reply

    Well Tina, as far as those cockroaches go I really don’t care, though at lunch today my friend told me that KIDS care about those.


    But for the turtles and snakes—though the building will be closed to the public all the staff will continue to work there through the 18 months or so that they are closed, to carry out the transition (which is MAJOR, and requires lots of planning and execution as you can imagine).

    So I’m sure someone will be assigned, a student or intern, to care for those residents until they too can move to their new home.

    Or I suppose they could be sent off to live in happy grade schools and middle schools where there are students who love cockroaches of the GIANT variety!!!

    They will all be fine.

    • Sharon Nolfi
    • December 24, 2016

    Yes, I meant Stonehenge! I did receive a packet with 3 letter-size pieces, 1 hot press and 2 cold press in different weights. Keep trying.

  8. Reply

    Sharon, I didn’t hold any hope out as they’d sent me a note that they were coming but they never arrived. I called Wet Paint and the manager hooked me up with samples of the cold press. So all I have to do now is finish my journals for the year and I can play with the new paper. I’m looking forward to it.

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