Artist Shirley Bell helps make Stuart birthplace more accessible
When he was in his 70s, Gilbert Stuart returned to his birthplace in Saunderstown. He knocked on the door and asked if he could see the room he was born in. By then, he was already a world famous artist who had painted portraits of six presidents, including the George Washington bust that graces the dollar bill.
Over the years, the Stuart birthplace fell into disrepair. However, in 1931, a group of concerned citizens – including noted colonial architect Norman Isham – purchased the property and made plans to restore the historic site. The 23-acre Gilbert Stuart Birthplace & Museum opened the following year and includes the Stuart home, a 17th century gristmill, and a welcome center. The house, where the artist lived until he was 7, was built in 1750. The museum draws approximately 2,500 visitors every year.
One person who has not been able to visit – at least in terms of entering the buildings – is Jamestown artist Shirley Bell, whose brother Dan is president of the museum. Bell suffered a spinal cord injury in an auto accident when she was 16 years old and has been confined to a wheelchair ever since.
The museum’s welcome center is not handicapped accessible, making it nearly impossible for Bell to see all the facets of the birthplace. However, that is about to change. A fundraiser will be held on the museum grounds on Aug. 9 to raise money for renovations, ultimately making the facilities inviting to all.
Bell grew up in Warwick and spent summers in Jamestown since she was 3 years old. She has never let her handicap hold her back. Bell has been a watercolor painter for more than 25 years and has her own business. At one time she made jewelry and hand-painted items, but now sticks to painting and printing her work. In 2008, Shirley Bell Designs was established. She sells original art and postcard reproductions to galleries and gift shops throughout New England.
Bell soon realized she would need some way for storeowners to see her work so they could decide if they wanted to include her art in their shops. She took Photoshop lessons and learned how to create a catalog. She also learned to scan her own images for printing on cards.
After purchasing the printers, scanners and computers, Bell created her first catalog and sent it out. Several companies were interested, and already about 10 sales reps carry her line. That means each year she has to come up with new designs and a new catalog. Bell works at home with her husband, a retired photographer, and one employee. Orders are faxed in and the trio prints, packs and ships the orders.
Much of what Bell paints are depictions of coastal scenes, and Jamestown plays no small role. Views from Beavertail and Fort Wetherill have inspired a number of Bell’s paintings. There are also scenes from the coast of Maine and Cape Cod. Bell’s three gardens inspire paintings of flowers as well. Locally, Bell’s cards can be found in Jamestown Designs and McQuade’s Marketplace.
Bell has been named honorary chair of this year’s Gilbert Stuart Museum gala. In addition to raising funds for handicapped accessibility, the proceeds will be used to paint the museum buildings. The fundraiser is titled “Paint the Town Red.”
“I’m doing this because it’s going to raise money so that myself and other people can get in to see the museum,” Bell said. “That would be a big improvement. I’ve always wanted to get in because I love Gilbert Stuart. I’ve seen pictures of the inside.”
Unfortunately, it will prove difficult to make the entire site handicapped accessible since the gristmill and birthplace are colonial structures. Nothing can be done to them that might compromise their integrity. But the welcome center is a start in the right direction, she says.
These days the museum is able to continue operations as a result of a small endowment and an annual fundraiser. According to Harriet Powell, secretary of the museum, the current capital campaign to improve the welcome center began in 2010. In addition to improved accessibility and the painting project, temperature control will be installed so it can house original Gilbert Stuart paintings.
With the added security and temperature control expected in the expanded building, Powell says the museum can begin to accept donations of original Stuart paintings.
The gala will take place under a tent on Friday, Aug. 9, from 5 to 7 p.m., raise or shine. The festivities will include music, wine, appetizers, raffles and a silent auction. Tickets are $40 per person and can be reserved by calling the museum at 294-3001.