New Welsh Review

Gwylio’r Gwylwr / Gallery Watching

Ellen Bell is nearly six months into her year-long reportage residency at Ruthin Craft Centre, Ruthin, and Oriel Davies, Newtown, in which her listening and storytelling skills, ‘a Barbara Pym kind of drawn narrative’, are as important as her drawing skills

PUBLISHED ON: 14/02/23

CATEGORY: Blog, Column

TAGS: drawing, galleries, illustration, reportage, storytelling, visual art

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From Oriel Davies residency, image by Ellen Bell, drawing made on 21 September 2022 (2).


I find drawing hard, even though I’ve been doing it most of my life. It’s not the action of it – making marks with graphite, ink, crayon or paint on a paper is glorious – but being authentic with it.

From Oriel Davies residency, image by Ellen Bell, drawing made on 19 October 22.


As an arts journalist I’ve spent a lot of time in galleries watching and listening to how people respond to art and art spaces. I’ve been particularly fascinated by the more incidental, non-art chat that formal, white-cube spaces seem to generate. It’s an interest that has, in turn, been the focus of a series of installations and performances in my own artistic practice. In its inchoate stage, Gwylio’r Gwylwr / Gallery Watching was to involve recording and documenting gallery visitors engaging in this kind of peripheral chat. However, I was forced into a rethink after Arts Council Wales declined funding this project on the grounds of data protection. Six months on, it somehow metamorphosed into a monthly reportage drawing performance at Ruthin Craft Centre’s (RCC) and Oriel Davies’ (OD) galleries, and it continues until this September. Akin to voluntarily jumping into the sea without a lifebelt, suddenly I was challenging myself to not only capture visitors’ behaviour in these spaces through drawing, but to do it live, publically and openly. The prospect was terrifying.

From Oriel Davies residency, image by Ellen Bell portraying viewers of painting by Shani Rhys James, drawing made on 21 September 2022.


Searching for some kind of artistic honesty, over the years I’d allowed my creative practice to drift into a hybrid mix of text, collage, installation and performance. Drawing had become an adjunct, something that I did covertly in a Moleskine sketchbook while travelling. And yet the observation of animate, sentient beings had always been at its core.

From Oriel Davies residency, image by Ellen Bell portraying ceramics by Philip Eglin, drawing made on 25 January 2023.


Drawing for me is about paying attention: an acute, almost forensic, surveillance of another’s gestures, gait, manner and dress. But it’s also about storytelling. I draw fast. I need to if I am to forget myself and all that baggage of doubt and fear that badgers every line. I draw fast so as to move in tandem, in empathy, with the solitary business man in Patisserie Valerie, Knightsbridge, whose fingers kept rubbing his forehead as he read a text, or the couple at an Italian restaurant in Bath who hadn’t spoken all night and sat in a taut silence broken only by her hands fussing through her handbag. Attracted to the small, the pedestrian, the almost imperceptible: it’s a Barbara Pym kind of drawn narrative.

From Oriel Davies residency, image by Ellen Bell, drawing made on 14 December 2022.


The term ‘reportage’ is usually associated with an illustrative response to acts of war or seminal political happenings. With such grandees of the craft as Gustave Doré, Käthe Kollwitz, George Grosz, Ronald Searle and Paul Hogarth, and more latterly Veronica Lawlor, George Butler and Oliver Kugler, my appropriation of it to describe my drawing performances may seem an anomaly. However, as I regard every visit to a gallery as an event, however transient, and every engagement with a space analogous to a theatre stage – where anything, however insignificant, can happen – it’s an apt word. In their excellent book Reportage Illustration: Visual Journalism, Gary Embury and Mario Minichiello describe reportage drawing as ‘capturing the dynamics of unfolding events’: a combination of ‘sketching the appearance of a scene as well as striving to understand and communicate a story.’ It’s those gallery stories that I’m endeavouring to encapsulate, and halfway through the project, I know more than ever that I have no control over what they will be.

From Oriel Davies residency, image by Ellen Bell, drawing made on 16 November 2022.


As art spaces, RCC and OD are radically different – in size, demographic, aesthetic and ethos. As a writer and an artist I have built up good working relationships with both galleries, and they were always going to be my project’s testbed. As I tend to do my monthly draw over two days, visiting one gallery after the other, it’s a contrast I relish. It takes me from the wide, airy, slightly-detached oasis of RCC’s spaces to the relative intimacy of OD’s galleries, made cosy with soup smells from the café and where its forever-opening sliding doors act as corridor between the town’s bus station and park. No visit is ever the same. Visitors to both spaces seem to come in a flurry; some linger, some do a rapid circuit and disappear, some stop to talk to me. Many ask if I’m responsible for the work on show. Bent over a rollator, an elderly woman at RCC grunted at me as she wheeled past, saying: ‘So they still teach drawing at art school, do they?’ Others tell me about their practices, some even giving me advice, such as the ex-teacher at OD who barked: ‘You should use fountain pens not dip pens.’ Some share personal narratives, like the man at RCC who, prompted by watching Helen Yardley’s video while his wife made several circuits of the exhibition, gave me a long account of their railway travels in India and how he’d watched the local women on the side of the road, weaving carpets; or the woman who told me of one of her female relatives who used to travel to Newtown to sell her butter at the market, renting a room in the town to eat her sandwiches. I particularly value the human details of such interactions, as they not only feed my drawing, but my sense of what these art spaces bring to the communities they serve.

From Ruthin Craft Centre residency, image by Ellen Bell, drawing made on 18 October 2022.


This project continues to be a revelation for me. As an artist, I want to surprise myself. As a counterpoint to the nerves that the prospect of drawing in public excites, I need the adrenalin rush that comes when I lay out my materials and begin. But for all my new-found make-a-drawing-a-day discipline, it’s still a hit-and-miss kind of practice, and one that I try not to judge too prematurely (Paul Hogarth used to let at least three days elapse before he would look at a drawing he’d made on location). Finding a drawing community with which to belong on AXISWEB, a-n, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram is a real godsend, particularly the instantaneous and generous support of some of those on the latter. My Gallery Watching drawings represent a moment, a fleeting depiction of the living encountering the still-life, and either being entranced by it or left cold. And there are all those site-specifics to include – the artworks, signage and other spatial architecture, as well as decisions about materials to be made.

From Ruthin Craft Centre residency, image by Ellen Bell (Helen Yardley rug in background), drawing made on 13 December 2022.


To iterate, drawing is hard. But reportage drawing is harder. There’s an alchemy to it – an enchanted transmutation that can’t be controlled or forced. And it is utterly compulsive.

From Ruthin Craft Centre residency, image by Ellen Bell (Helen Yardley rug in background), drawing made on 15 November 2022.


I’ve found my home.

From Ruthin Craft Centre residency, image by Ellen Bell, drawing made on 20 September 2022.


Ellen Bell drawing in Ruthin Craft Centre, 13 December 2022, photo by Pip Jones.


Gwylio’r Gwylwr / Gallery Watching is funded by the Arts Council of Wales.

From Ruthin Craft Centre residency, image by Ellen Bell, drawing made on 24 January 2023.


Ellen Bell is in residence at Oriel Davies, Newtown and at Ruthin Craft Centre until September 2023, alternating between the galleries on a monthly basis. She is an artist who currently specialises in gallery watching and reportage. The drawings/illustrations depicted above are all by Ellen Bell. Top and feature image is from Ruthin Craft Centre residency, image by Ellen Bell (responding to the On Your Table exhibit), drawing made on 24 January 2023.