Lexi Bella | Street Artist + Fine Artist
"I think it's really important to make plans but be open to them going in different directions. You can apply that to painting or you can apply that to your life. You have to have a plan, an intention, but it's important to have non-attachment and then you give your painting room to breathe and your life the space to go places."
We got the chance to catch up with the artist, Lexi Bella, a few months ago. She was in the process of working on her "Heroines of the Lower East Side" mural for the Fourth Arts Block Fables project. We showed up at the Centre-Fuge site with high expectations, and Lexi did not disappoint. Like her work, Lexi is colorful and loud, demanding all attention. By the end of it, I had yellow spray paint in my hair, and my belly was hurting from all the giggling.
How would you describe yourself?
I’m a fine artist and street artist…also a business woman, fashion icon, sex symbol, and spiritual guru. (Smirks) My higher self is Rhiannon DuBelleville. That’s what I call my higher self. That bitch always knows what to do. She even has her own Facebook page.
How did you get into art?
I started painting when I was little. My grandmother was a watercolor artist and a teacher. I was rambunctious and she was like “Here’s a paintbrush, here’s some water colors, get out of my hair.” But she was the first one telling me I was really talented. I just caught the bug. I just wanted to do it all the time. My mom, she’ll tell me I drew a picture of a triceratops in the 4th grade and that’s when she knew I was talented, and she got me art lessons after school. And for years, I took those and when I was in 7th grade, I got a scholarship to go to Moore College of Art in Philly to take a fashion illustration course.
And then when I got into high school, I was exploring what I wanted to do and what I wanted to go to college for. I was thinking about going into theatre – I was in a lot of plays, I was really into Shakespeare, but I did my art too. Although in high school I didn’t get the respect I should have for my art – fuck those teachers.
When I was applying to college, my parents really wanted me to get a scholarship. And I applied for an art scholarship, and they paid for half my schooling. I was like, if these people will pay me for work I haven’t made yet, I could make this into a career. That was the first time.
What about graduate school?
So I was in college and got really good at painting and stuff. And then my parents were like, “We want you to go to grad school.” I told them I was only going for art. I applied to a bunch and didn’t get in, but then got into the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and I was the youngest person in my class!
I was in graduate school and all steeped in high art, fine art and talking about philosophy and a chair in a room for 8 hours, but they’re also really known for building painting, so, that was great.
This is also when you got into live painting, right?
Yeah, I was 23 and in Philly, and I had a friend that told me to come to this live painting night on South Street. So I went and I ended up doing it there for two years, and I was just really good at it. I loved it - loved the whole night life scene. I was painting live, drinking for free, and I’d get like $200 bucks at the end of the night. I was like “This is amazing! I’ll definitely be rich and famous by 25.” (Laughs)
What happened after grad school?
So I finished grad school and moved to Brooklyn. My parents had a huge problem with that and stopped talking to me. That’s when I really learned about survival and how to take care of myself. I lived the whole broke artist thing, and it sucks but it teaches you what you’re made of. It teaches you what you want, how to survive, if you’re really an artist or not. It makes you really commit to it.
I moved to Brooklyn, I was working as a teacher’s assistant at a preschool for autistic children out in bumblefuck Brooklyn. I had to wake up at the crack of dawn and I got $600 a week. You just can’t live like that. So, I started bartending instead.
How did Art Battles and street art come into the picture?
I called Art battles and said "Hey, I paint live, and I have one video from Philly in my portfolio." And they were like “We’re going to have an all female battle.” And I thought, “I’m going to run this shit!” And it was so funny how I did not. But it was so good because it made me step up my game. I got voted out in the first round. And three of them ended up being my best friends in New York. Then I started to get into some exhibitions and that’s when I started hanging out with street artists and graff writers, and at the time I was like “I’m just a painter.”
And I kept doing art battles and started winning them. I traveled with them to Paris, and that’s when I met other street artists that didn’t give a fuck about rules of graffiti. I saw them doing impressionistic paintings and realism…and I was like, “I can fucking do this!” And that’s what gave birth to all this.
I won all these Art Battles in Paris, and my confidence was up. And I came home and did big spray murals – that’s in 2011 and 2012. And that’s what led me to this (referring to the Fourth Arts Block mural she was working on). And I was able to go paint at Upfest in England and invited to paint at Artbazzle in Miami last year. And then I submitted the proposal for this project. I’m in the whole street art game. I just want to paint more, paint as big as possible everywhere.
Tell us more about the project you’re working on…
I found out that Fourth Arts Block was looking for public art projects that were historically relevant to the Lower East Side for their Fables Project. I sat and did a lot of research about interesting women from here representing the different cultures that have lived here. Since the 1700s, all of these different cultures have moved into the area, lived here and had an explosion of culture and then moved out. It just immediately popped into my head and I submitted it.
Fourth Arts Block had different sites around the Lower East Side – when they told me I was going to do Centre-Fuge, I was like “hell yeah!” And I’m friends with Pebbles who runs it. I just love it so much. So many people I love and respect have done it. The community has given them other walls, but this was the first one.
You’ve worked with Centre-Fuge before, right?
When I first heard about it, I was really excited and just starting to get involved for street art, and I submitted a painting that ended up being on that side and they were down. It was one of the first times I did spray painting too, which is funny because now it’s my shit.
Talk a bit more about your work and these women you chose…
I’ve always painted women. I went to undergrad and grad school, and it was my thing that I did. I thought a lot about it, and I don’t like explaining things. I find that if you treat your work in an exploratory manner rather that have a defined reason for doing it, you let the work come to life and let the work explain itself. A lot of times when you have an idea for something, it’s never how it ends up. You have to let it grow. You always have better work when you’re not trying to confine it.
It’s about the experience of being a woman, how we perceive ourselves, our sexuality. It’s an exploration of that and the beauty, and sometimes my pieces are pretty/sexy but there's also a creepy monster element to it. And that’s part of it, that’s part of being a woman. Sometimes you want to feel beautiful and sometimes you want to be a monster bitch. And it’s those day-to-day feelings.
I do portraits a lot. But I haven’t ever really done portraits of people in my street art. This will be a fun way to expand my repertoire with spray paint. I haven’t done with spray paint what I do with brushes for portraits. And I really care about the Lower East Side, about these interesting women that can be role models, especially having a little daughter from this area.
Originally, I wanted to do eight panels. I shrunk it down to five and then decided to do seven: Catherine Ferguson, Hellcat Maggie, The Russ Sisters, Ellen Stewart, Debbie Harry, Rosario Dawson, and my daughter, Roxy Beckwith. (Click here for more information on the women featured.)
What do you consider to be your big break?
There were different points. Like, this is a big break (referring to the Fables project). There’s a really great quote: “Luck is when opportunity meets readiness.” Different steps in my life led me to new opportunities and more respect.
I would say that getting a scholarship made me take myself seriously as an artist. Finishing grad school was also a great accomplishment. I feel really proud of having that degree. When I was able to battle in Paris. Art battles has given me a lot of opportunities: Paris, Switzerland, and the Brooklyn Museum of Art. Also, being asked to go to Upfest in England – we did a whole IndieGogo project to get us there. And this is the biggest project I’ve ever done.
Do you have a process of sorts?
I definitely use a lot of my intuition with what I want to paint. I start with the wall, what fits, what sort of image I want to portray on it. This has been the most organized project I’ve had. I had to really show them that I had thought it out before I executed it. I make the plans and then give myself room for improvisation too.
I meditate everyday. It’s important for my sanity. Days that I don’t, I’m off. I’d love to do it every morning or twice a day, but I know what’s realistic for me is once a day. I feel like that really helps me stay in tune with my focus, my inner voice. I really think we all have a guide – we all have the ability to know what’s right and wrong for us, and we don’t listen to that enough. Meditating helps me to check in.
And whenever I paint - and I learned this from winning Art Battles in Paris - I always say a prayer before I do a piece and sage the piece down. Just clear the energy, be grounded. The whole idea of prayer just has to do with spirit in general and putting that intention out there. And my paintings are always better when I do that and stay grounded.
And when I’m stressed out and painting, if I’m having a fucked up day or can’t get something right – I’ll just go into a mantra and get into the space instead of having negative self-talk or being frantic.
I think it’s really important to make plans but be open to them going in different directions. You can apply that to painting, or you can apply that to your life.
You have to have a plan, an intention, but it’s important to have non-attachment and then you give your painting room to breathe and your life the space to go places.
Do you have a mentor? Or people who inspire you?
Stevie Nicks and Rupaul really inspire me. I love what Rupaul has done with her life and drag. She’s got the best one-liners: “Girl, if you don’t love yourself, how the hell you gonna love somebody else?” Can I get an amen? That’s so true. Madonna always inspired the crap out of me. I love Deepak Chopra. I really love what he has to say. Then there’s just like Gwen Stefani.
I’d say it’s more these personalities that really inspire me – just icons in general and learning from them. And that’s what this is about. It’s seeing these women who’ve done really amazing things. I love learning about that, and we forget that it was shitty for women for a really long time, and it’s getting better.
I’m a single mom with a bi-racial kid who’s making her living as an artist. And this is such a great time period to live in where everyone’s okay with that. I can do that, and it’s totally normal. Even 40 years ago, I would be ostracized for not only having a bi-racial child and not being married, but for also being an artist.
Yes, and I got this advice form my first professor: just keep painting. That’s my mantra when I get frustrated: just keep painting. And just keep refining your vision. Write down what you want and don’t edit yourself – have a big goal. If you write down what you want and you start to make a plan with little baby steps, that’s going to lead you to fabulous glory. Just keep doing your art work. Don’t let people stop you. Just keep making shit and eventually it will get you somewhere. Artists are successful because they just kept doing it. You just have to do that with your work. And if you want to be a street artist, just do it everywhere.
What does the word authentic mean to you?
I think it’s to really own and explore who you are. And to not deny it or change it for other people. Being authentic is not giving a fuck, even when other people are putting you down.
Where do you see yourself in five years?
My plan is to sell paintings for 70k a piece. My ultimate goal is to have 280 million dollars in the bank - that’s my goal. I want to start safe houses for victims of child prostitution, who are trying to recover from that – Bella Houses, that’s what I’ll do. These girls don’t have anywhere to go to recover. That could be a really amazing project, to open different houses and use art therapy as part of their recovery and get them to love themselves.
Would you do anything else?
Yoga in like Bali or something.
Be sure to check out Lexi's "Lower East Side Heroines Project" at the Centre-Fuge site,
on 1st street between 1st ave and 2nd ave.
Lexi's website: www.lexibella.com
Centre-Fuge Public Art Project: http://centre-fuge.tumblr.com
Fourth Arts Block: http://fabnyc.org/news/fables-public-art-project