Traveling vicariously with painter Bella Foster

[Pamela Williams] Bella Foster’s exuberant paintings depict spaces both real and imagined. They explode with pattern, light and bold color. Her settings are eclectic, joyful and zany. Inspired by artists like Henri Matisse and designers like Charles and Ray Eames, Bella paints the places and spaces she loves, with equal weight to subject and object. The irony? Bella Foster has never visited most of the places she paints.

Left: Secret Garden, 2010; right: The Dining Room, 2010


I imagine myself sitting in your interiors, reading the newspaper or a good book or talking with a good friend … inspired by these bursts of color, and somehow feeling calmed by them, too. What are some of your inspirations, Bella?

I get a lot of inspiration from books. I love the book Rooms (Rizzoli) with photographs by Derry Moore. It’s one of my favorites. I also have a rotation of Pierre Bonnardbooks I like to look at … and old design books, too.

Left, Jill, 2010; right, Owl Lamp, 2010

I recently acquired a copy of Gloria Vanderbilt Book of Collage (Van Nostrand Reinhold). Published in 1970, it is really amazing. She decorated an entire room in patchwork quilts — patchwork floor, walls and ceiling! Oh, another thing, Gloria Vanderbilt has the same birthday as me. Aren’t you always a little fascinated to find out that someone you admire has the same birthday as yourself?

Work in progress, Charleston, 2010

My inspiration also comes from image searches on the internet. A good example is Charleston House in Sussex [above], the country home of the Bloomsbury Group. The artists who stayed there decorated the walls, doors and furniture. I’ve never been there, but I’ve spent many hours looking at photographs of it. A photo I found of one of the rooms on the Charleston website was my inspiration.

Charleston, 2010

These spaces feel so intimate, like you’ve spent a lot of time in them.

I feel as if I’ve spent a lot of time in them, but actually I haven’t visited most of them.

You recreate and redesign spaces. Did you ever want to be an interior designer?

No, but someday I’d like to design some crazy textiles, like do a huge interior that is a repeat.

Left: Beatrice Wood 1942 photo on artist’s drawing; right: Vase With Almond Branch, 2008

Tell us about the portrait you’re working on.

Over the years, I’ve heard wonderful stories about Beatrice Wood’s home in Ojai, California. (I’ve also heard that it’s no longer kept the way she had it when she was alive, so I haven’t beaten down the door to see it.) For now, I’m enjoying the way I imagine it, from the stories I’ve read and heard. Someone told me that Beatrice had fuschia walls — both inside and out, with art and ceramics everywhere. Actually, I’ve become quite attached to my imagined version! I’d like to time-travel back about 20 years to visit her. If you haven’t seen it, there is a really good documentary on her called Beatrice Wood: Mama of Dada. I remember watching the original documentary, and I’ve also watched parts on YouTube.

Left, artist’s work in progress. Miniature painting artist’s reproduction of Sonia Delaunay’s Lithographie 1972; right, Sonia, 2010.

So you travel vicariously to all of these wonderful spaces and reimagine them?

Yes, sometimes when I start out painting an interior, I don’t know where it’ll go. In Sonia, I was interested in how the Staffordshire dogs and the little portrait on the dresser are looking at the viewer. And honestly I didn’t have a plan on how the rest would go. I have a collection of printed-out miniaturized paintings and artwork. I use them as stand-ins to see what art I might like to put in the room, and this one turned out to be all about Sonia Delaunay. There is also a little Picasso in the hallway peeking out behind the still life.

Left: Summer Kitchen, 2010; right: Bryce Marden’s Summer House, 2010

What first inspired you to paint other people’s homes, their workspaces, their “stuff”?

I like the way people live and express their character through their homes. It’s very personal, like doing a portrait. I also like that my friend’s homes are not set up to be photographed as “fabulous” places to live or aspire to live, but instead they have their piles of stuff, and books, mementos and ordinary things that may not be considered so special — but that’s what’s fun, to find the specialness in all that. Sometimes I’ll add surprises that I know the person would like to live with in their weird dream world … like an Ettore Sottsass bookcase.

From the artist’s journal, 2010

Whose studio is this?

This is my friend Josh Blackwell‘s studio — I love looking at artist’s messy workspaces. I have that picture of Ray Eames’ desk [left] taped to the wall in my studio for that reason … it’s a beautiful photo, and there’s so much to look at. And I like how things become abstracted so you can’t tell exactly what they are, but you still know it’s a desk.

Stripes, dots, repeat-pattern fabrics and wallpaper … patterns are a recurring motif.

Yes, I love patterns! There is a Muriel Brandolini bathroom I’m obsessed with that I found while browsing images online. And I love the book Egyptian Ornament. It’s been a good source of pattern inspirations.

Left, Evil Twin Sister, 2010; right, final artwork for B Mine Online Valentine project

I participated in the kate spade new york B Mine Online Valentine project for the past two years. These two paintings came from working on that. The first one I made included the pattern from the book cover. I call that one Evil Twin Sister, because I ended up turning in the other one for the Valentine.

This feels like a crazy artist’s atalier. Love the dog!

It’s the exhibit space for my show in NYC at Art Since the Summer of ’69. If you haven’t been there, it’s an unusual space for a gallery. It’s very small, about 6 x 15 feet! Because of the size of the space, the gallery likes to invite artists to do something different than what they would do at a traditional ground floor gallery. The installation for this show was really a collaberation with the three people who run the space.

Left: Blitz, 2010; right: Sigurd, 2010

The plan was that I was going to do a patterned wall, and actually it was Fabienne Stephan [co-director] who suggested the strawberries. I did a test in my studio and loved it. The floor is what we call our “Josef Albers moment,” a rectangle within a rectangle, within a rectangle. The painting then becoming the rug. The dog painted on the floor, Alice, is mine.

What are some of the other places that inspire you?

Carl Larsson’s house in Sweden, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant’s home [Charleston], Mary Fedden’s home (as seen in an issue of The World of Interiors a couple years ago), and Charles and Ray Eames’ home, The Bridge House. I have not been to the Eames home yet! That is on the top of my field trip list.

Oh, and I can’t forget Matisse’s home in Le Cateu, or Pierre Bonnard’s home — either would be a dream come true. And one more thing, I’d like to be a guest at the Christmas Eve celebration in Fanny and Alexander!

Bella, what about your studio … is it as inspiring your paintings?

Having just moved, from New York to LA, the studio is full of cardboard boxes. Everything’s a mess, and there are piles of stuff everywhere. It’s OK though, it’s shown me that I can work from anywhere.

Library (detail), 2010

Born in 1975, Bella Foster just opened her first solo show in NYC (Interior, now through Dec. 19, 2010.) Bella’s drawings have been published in The New York Times, New York, W and Diner Journal. “The paintings of Bella Foster” are included in kate spade new york’s recently published, Things we Love. Bella blogs occasionally at Here, There and Them. Limited edition prints will be available in December at, launching at Daily Candy for Kids.

Pamela Williams is the managing editor of Felt & Wire. She loves Harmony in Red and agrees with its painter: “Modern art spreads joy around it by its color, which calms us.” She’d like to host her book club in Bella’s Secret Garden (top) and hang one of Bella’s strawberries in her kitchen.

All images © Bella Foster 2010

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Comments (3)

  1. Posted by Cindy Frankey on 11.12.10 at 10:38 am

    Now I want to stay on this website all day long. I love your paintings, Bella, and, amazingly, I thought of the Nabis, Bonnard and Vuillard. And you should definitely go to Ojai :). Thank you for this article. I want to see more of Bella Foster.

  2. Posted by Lee Moody on 11.12.10 at 11:04 am

    oh boy ! this is my absolute favorite article…did I say that already ? I love these paintings and would follow all of you anywhere, anytime, forever and ever ….and I am not fibbing either ~ these paintings make my tail wag ( if I had a tail ) :>)

  3. Posted by Kittredge on 11.12.10 at 8:12 pm

    An excellent post with SO MUCH rich content, and a what perfectly soft and comfy follow-on to kate spade’s creations! My absolute favorite?… Love, love, love the internet inspired Charleston 2010 (sorry Sean Adams!) I’d love to commission Bella and a rendering of MY living space. Well, not just yet. Curious is the cameo appearance in nearly every piece of a small dog in one form or another, if only her bowl. Alice? Or perhaps a Freudian slip on the part of the managing editor? You continue to amaze!!!

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