Ian Bell has been working with stained glass projects for more than 40 years and said on April 16 he does it for self-expression and enjoyment, not to make commissions. (Photo: K-J Millar/The Northern View)

Heart of our City: Ian Bell, stained glass artist

With light adding highlight through stained glass, Ian Bell colours Prince Rupert

  • Apr. 24, 2021 12:00 a.m.

It was on a boat trip to the land down under in 1978 that a young Prince Rupert Welshman met an Australian artisan who sparked a flicker of interest that welded into more than 40 years of stained glass art on British Columbia’s north coast.

At the young age of 17, Ian Bell joined the merchant navy and sailed a stint of seven years around the global waters. Each voyage he signed on for was a round trip to and from Britain going anywhere in the world, lasting from a couple of weeks to a couple of months, he said.

“There is nothing quite like being at sea. It’s just amazing when you can’t see anything except the horizon for 360 degrees, or when you are up on the watch at night and there is no separation between the sea and the sky. It’s just beautiful,” he said.

He was already familiar with the west coast waters of North America as his ship had been sailing a route between B.C., California, and Japan. Plus, his brother lived in a place called Prince Rupert.

“We docked in Kitimat. I got the day off to come to Prince Rupert and my brother came to pick me up,” he said of his first time visiting the coastal city.

“A while later he wrote me a letter and asked if I wanted him to start the immigration process. I said ‘go for it’.”

Once back in the U.K. Ian went along with daily life, his immigration works in the works when the time came to meet with an immigration officer at Canada House in Birmingham. It was around 1974 pre-internet.

“So, I’m sitting in front of the guy and he says, ‘Well, where do you think you’re going to go Mr. Bell’. So, I said I’m going to go to Prince Rupert. He just looks at me and he puts his pen down. Then he says in disbelief, ‘have you ever been to Prince Rupert?” Ian explained that the officer was used to hearing Vancouver, Toronto, Montreal as the desired destinations, not a small city in the north of Canada.

“I told him as a matter of fact that I had been to Prince Rupert. So, the ball was rolling and three months later, I’m in Canada.”

Ian started working on the tug boats around Prince Rupert and soon met his wife Susan who encouraged him to develop stronger land legs. Ian attended North West Community College, received his welding ticket and started working at the pulp mill.

“The rest is history,” he said.

Wanting to tour the southern hemisphere in the late 1970s Ian and Susan were travelling in Singapore where they boarded a small ship and headed to Western Australia. It was on that voyage Ian met a glass artist working on the ship named Warren Langley. They became friends and when the boat docked Ian and Susan went to stay at his house in Sydney.

“He’s moved on to much more famous things now. He’s a wonderful artist,” Ian said of his friend who has had major artworks in The New Australian Parliament House, the Maison de la Opera in Amiens, France as well as many other international art projects.

Langley showed him the ropes and when Ian arrived home he decided the art which is made more colourful by the light of the sun was going to busy his hands.

“There are two kinds of techniques. There’s ‘copper foil’. Each piece of glass is wrapped in a copper foil and then the whole thing is soldered,” he said. “The other plan of attack would be ‘lead came’. That is the glass is wrapped in a piece of lead so that only the joints are soldered.”

He worked at stained glass on and off over the years when he had time while raising his two daughters Emily and Sian. When the pulp mill closed, he became the coach of the swim club and eventually a long-shore man. He spent many hours at home with his girls taking on the role of a house-dad, which he says he was incredibly lucky to be able to do. Some of his favourite times were taking his daughters for coffee after 6 a.m. swim sessions.

In 1986 Ian was accepted into the Pilchuck Glass School, an international centre for glass art education in Washington state. He travelled down for a summer session and came back inspired to put his heart into the pieces of stained glass art that until then had just been a hobby for when he had the time.

“That fired me back up to carry on with what I was doing,” he said. “Then I just learned from making tonnes of mistakes and losing lots of glass. That’s the process, right.”

Ian said obtaining supplies up in the North can be a challenge. The coloured glass is purchased in sheets and he gets it from suppliers down south or Vancouver as there is nowhere in the north to equip stained glass artists.

Glass sheets can be expensive he said, with large ones being as big as 24 inches by 40 inches. The suppliers will cut it down to 12 by 12 if a glass artist needs. Prince varies on style, thickness and size.

“That lends to the remoteness of what we’re dealing with here. Everything has to be either bought online or I have to go down to Vancouver, and then it has to be shipped up to Prince Rupert,”

Ian said there is a lot that goes into play when designing a piece such as the choice of glass for the individual project, the purchase, and the shipping.

“I usually saved up enough money for a couple of years before I went down to Vancouver so that I could buy up as much as my stash would allow me,” he said.

When it comes to his art, Ian said he likes to do everything himself complete from vision to the final production. As such he hasn’t taken commissions. He has given away most of his work over the years and has only photos of many creations.

“I find that when I do my own thing people either like it or they don’t like it. It’s neither here nor there. That may seem a bit flippant I know, but it doesn’t restrict me.”

“I’m always surprised and grateful what people see in the pieces I do, and that they are willing to take them. So, I’m always pleased as punch when that happens.”

Prince Rupert has a very supportive art scene he said and has many creative people.

“There are tonnes of talented people here in Prince Rupert, like writers, and musicians, First Nations artists and artists of international status,” Ian said. “It’s amazing, the talent in town. Some of it is under the radar, some of it is not under the radar.”

“COVID-19 just put the outright screeching breaks on [the art culture] and it’s very sad. The arts were alive and well in Prince Rupert up until that point.”

Now that he has retired, in between gardening and making an amazing Guinness bread, Ian said he has many hours to work on stained glass projects of different sizes. Recently he caught Prince Rupert resident’s attention with some stained glass doors he breathed new life into. The wooden doors had been tucked away under his front porch for years which he was stirred to rejuvenate with stained glass panels.

“Until my friend put it on Facebook, I bet there were only 20 people in town that knew what I was doing,” he said. “Now people call me just to say how good they look and how lovely they are. It’s nice and I’m pretty up about that.”

K-J Millar | Journalist

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