@story JD WILLIAMS
@images JP BELL
Categories. Labels. Names. They make us feel as if we’ve got a handle on things - and people. Particularly people. In this increasingly complicated world it helps us keep our sanity if we can hang a tidy label on the people in our lives. Of course, some folks are easier to categorize than others.“Joe Smith is a carpenter.”
“Suzanne is my sister.”
“Bill’s a total jerk.”
See what I mean?
But there are those rare people in the world who are - how shall we put it - category teflon. The simple nouns and adjectives we use for everyone else we know just don’t stick to them. The ink that tattoos our label of choice on others might as well be preschool no-stain finger-paint. For example...
“J.P. is a doctor at the ER. And a pilot. And he’s an award winning professional photographer and writer. Did I mention he was a missionary for a while? And he’s one of the best white-water canoe paddlers you’ll ever meet.”
Well which is it?
And therein lays the conundrum of attempting to categorize J.P. Bell. But let’s be honest with ourselves. We’re going to do all we can to make a label stick - even to a guy like J.P. – so let’s get on with it, shall we?
J.P. is a soft spoken native son of Arkansas, a devoted husband, proud father of two, and a life-long resident of the area. So far, so good, right? But J.P. didn’t always live in Arkansas. It turns out that just after he finished second grade, his father, a carpenter, immigrated to Northern California looking for work. When the family joined J.P.’s dad, the train ride that pulled them from the Ozarks to the Sierras started a romance with the rails that J.P. never outgrew. To this day his favorite photographic subject is a Sante Fe steam train crossing the landscape of the American West.
He grew up just north of San Francisco exploring the outdoor wonders of the Sierras with a great friend whose dad happened the president of the Sierra Club. J.P.’s outdoor adventures amid the Redwoods of Northern California created a bond with nature that endures to this day. But when J.P.’s mom and dad ended their marriage just before he started his senior year of high school, the Sante Fe once again pulled J.P.’s family into the next phase of their life when they returned to Fort Smith.
Having finished high school in Fort Smith, J.P. received a Dixie Cup Corporation college scholarship, one of only ten granted nationwide that year, which was more than enough to cover the cost of attending the University of Arkansas. Among his many wilderness expeditions, he spent an entire college summer living out of a tent along the shores of Lake Norfolk near Mountain Home, Arkansas, patrolling the waters in a canoe and doing research on the various animals of that ecosystem. Even today, ask any local paddler to name the River Valley’s best whitewater canoe paddler and the answer will likely be, J.P. Bell. And although he was content with the solitary work of a field biologist and the outdoor lifestyle associated with it, J.P. soon found other college friends and a home-away-from-home at the Baptist Student Union on the university campus. His experience there clearly changed him, his faith, and his focus. Those changes helped him see the value of helping others and of sharing his faith in Christ as a natural part the process. When he later discovered that his grades made him fully qualified to apply for medical school, J.P. began his medical career.
Which in turn led J.P. to Montana, practicing medicine as a resident of the Blackfoot Indian reservation near the majestic beauty of Glacier National. He’ll gladly tell you stories of weathered Blackfoot Indian women who routinely walked into his clinic, gave birth, and strolled casually out the door an hour later so they could get back to their family in time to prepare the evening meal, finish their chores, and introduce their new papoose to the rest of the tribe. He’ll also tell you about the time he delivered the baby of one of those Blackfoot Indian women only to discover later that the mother had named her new daughter “Placenta” because it was the first word she heard after the delivery and thought it had a beautiful sound. (Yes, really.) Even today J.P.’s landscape photo art prints certainly bear the brushstrokes of that mountain state’s natural wonders. And several years back he acquired a small cabin not far from the Blackfoot reservation.
Dr. Bell also spent three months in the interior of Yemen as a medical missionary and budding photographer? And the next time you’re at your favorite bookstore you’ll likely find James P. Bell’s book called Steam Trains: A Modern View of Yesterday’s Railroads published by Voyageur Press. Which brings us back to the train ride J.P. experienced as a young boy crossing the great American West to join his father in California. That journey created a passion for trains that has driven J.P. to make thousands of photos of his favorite subject - the nation’s surviving steam trains. Recently, the Reeder Railroad based in Hot Springs, Arkansas, invited J.P. to photograph their classic steam locomotive on the set of the upcoming remake of the western movie classic True Grit, due out around Christmas. It is clear that J.P. has passion for capturing images on film that flash-freeze a moment of history, and, in that moment, arrests the all-too-swift passage of time and stops us in our tracks – just long enough to hear a story told through a single-lens reflex. And the most common subjects of his photos reveal J.P.’s yearning for what was once a greater, wilder America. What emerges on the other end of J.P.’s darkroom sink is quite often a plea to his fellow modern Americans to remember what made us great.
If ever there was a man difficult to label and limit, it’s J.P. Bell. But looking through his more artistic works one first discovers a label that just might stick to the man - “storyteller.” And because J.P. has actually managed to live the kind of adventurous life so many of us only talk about, he has lots of interesting stories to tell. He often weaves two common threads of complimentary colors into his narratives, the way Native American weavers often create their art with signature patterns. J.P.’s signature themes are always a profound hope in Jesus Christ and mourning for the lost greatness of America.