Pablo Picasso said that art washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life, a statement with a decided ring of truth to it – especially when you consider the entries for the 2021 Portrait Awards held at the Rust-en-Vrede Art Gallery.

The brilliance emanating from the chosen artworks brings a joy to the soul, reminding us that beauty is something we all need to ground us. Over 900 entries were received, which were whittled down to 40 finalists, among them three portraits rendered by our very own
Felicity Bell, based in Mbombela, who was also the overall winner. Well known in the Lowveld for her exceptional art, Felicity is still in shock after hearing her name called at the recent exhibition opening. “I was absolutely over the moon … I couldn’t quite believe it was
my name they called!” she laughs. “It was a long-held dream coming true after so many disappointments. The quality of the entries was outstanding.”

Winning this prestigious competition is a feather in her cap indeed, and means a huge step forward in Felicity’s painting career. “The exposure is so very valuable,” she explains. “The
winner tends to receive a lot of recognition, which in turn may lead to important commissions and successful exhibitions.” It also means that Felicity will be holding a solo exhibition at the revered Rust-en-Vrede Gallery in Cape Town in 2023, which she is absolutely thrilled about, especially now.

As with so many people, Covid has had a big impact on the family business. “My husband and I have had both our jabs. I think it’s important to break the hold this virus has on our way of life,” she says. “Covid has severely affected my son’s art business, and prevented my husband from attending his dad’s funeral in the UK. This win has come along at the perfect time; apart from being something so positive, the prize money is very welcome indeed!”

Works of this calibre don’t come along overnight, and like so many creatives, Felicity’s  artistic journey first started when she was a little girl. She always wanted to be an artist and was encouraged and inspired by her father, himself a wonderful painter. “I always drew and painted, but became serious about portraits when my children were all in high school and I had more time,” she says.

Felicity’s favourite medium is oil on canvas or board, and her inspiration comes from the people around her, evidenced by her choice of subject matter for her selected pieces. “Khulani, d. February 2021” (the overall winning piece), “Dana, Gallery Owner” and “A Visit to Dr Esther at Home” each is indicative of Felicity’s attention to detail and ability to  intimately capture the heart of her subject.

This is especially poignant as one of the three subjects, Khulani, recently died. Felicity met and befriended him at her favourite hardware store, when she was struck by his distinctive
self-confidence and joie de vivre. “He wore a variety of hairstyles, lavishly applied make-up and dangly earrings. And always the high-heeled ankle strap shoes, so incongruous with his standard store uniform,” she recalls.

Khulani, d. February 2021

She had been working on Khulani’s portrait for about six weeks when he let her know he had just had a stroke, but that he was on the mend. A week later she learnt that he had died. “Khulani’s is an honest portrait, very real,” she says. “He chose his outfit, his position, his expression. He chose not to wear make-up or jewellery … This is the core Khulani. I am so sad that he is not here to share this experience with me. He would have loved every moment of it, especially knowing that it was his portrait that won. I find it heart-warming that this piece serves as a tribute to a happy person.”

Felicity’s portrayal of the iconic Dr Esther Mahlangu perfectly captures the life of the internationally recognised Ndebele artist. “My aim was to capture this awe-inspiring woman at her home, clad from head to toe in traditional beads, blankets and bracelets. I painted
her standing out against a plain background as she sits on a warm, worn, homey blanket, gentle and great. This portrait, done in her 85th year, is a tribute to an unselfish, humble life – though one that has been feted here and on foreign shores. A life publicly honoured by President Ramaphosa, a life that has inspired so many to preserve their precious  heritage.”

A Visit to Dr Esther at Home

Felicity’s third portrait is one of her dear friend and mentor, Dana MacFarlane, who is also owner of the White River Gallery. While Khulani’s and Dr Esther’s portraits took her three months on and off to complete, Dana was a solid 10 days of painting. “I painted Dana in such a short time, because I had 10 spare days left before having to submit my works digitally,” Felicity explains. “I realised I could fit one more in and had long had a desire to portray Dana’s strength, beauty and passion for art.”

Dana, Gallery Owner

Not only do Felicity’s portraits depict the humanness in her subjects, they also embody her belief that art is something beyond the mundane reality of life. “Art can be magic,” she smiles. “It is a window into other worlds. But most of all, art is something you love to see on your wall. No painting should need an explanation to describe it; it’s the visual  experience that counts, and that should be enough.”