Originally published in New Jersey Monthly
Growing up in Atlantic City in the 1960s, Mike Bell had a front-row seat for the town’s lively cavalcade of entertainment. The splashy fun gave Bell a passion for brilliant colors and surprising imagery that today shows up in his art.
“Some of my fondest memories are the times I spent hanging out on the Boardwalk and going to concerts and shows with my three brothers,” says Bell. “My love for graphics and typography was inspired by the Steel Pier and its crazy, eye-catching, carnival sideshow signage.”
About five years ago, Bell lost his job as an art director and turned his focus to painting. His vibrant canvases—some as large as 4 feet by 4 feet—depict movie icons, comic-strip heroes and even monsters, often sipping brightly hued cocktails.
Innovation is a hallmark of Bell’s work. Shortly after becoming a full-time artist, he started making intricate black-and-white sketches on the inside covers of matchbooks. He incorporates the matchsticks into the pieces, adding a three-dimensional element. These unique matchbook works struck a chord; 40 are currently on tour with the Ripley’s Believe it or Not! Museum. His most popular matchbook images are rock stars and celebrities, including the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, Marilyn Monroe and Hillary Clinton.
Bell, 55, lives in Northfield with his wife, Amy, and their children. His artwork is shown in galleries across the world. Bell’s paintings, acrylic on canvas, can sell for as much as $4,000. His matchbook-art pieces go for $115. Locally, his work will be on display this summer at the Chora Leone Gallery in Somers Point; his matchbook series can be seen at the Holtzman Gallery at the Claridge in Atlantic City. He also puts his surrealist spin on cigar boxes that are available at 10th Avenue Burrito Company in Belmar.
Bell believes that fresh ideas are essential for today’s artists. “Anyone holding a smartphone can view hundreds of images,” says Bell. “To catch someone’s eye and be remembered is a challenge. A beautiful painting may intrigue someone, but a beautiful painting combined with an innovative idea may stop them in their tracks.”