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Inspired by the Holy Spirit

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Some artists rely on muses for creativity. Then there is Clorinda Chavez Galdos Bell, who receives inspiration from the source of all inspiration - the Holy Spirit.

Bell relies heavily on her deeply rooted Catholic faith each time she picks up a brush to put paint to canvas. And that faith has never failed to inspire.

A native of Cuzco, Peru, Bell has been plying her talent since age 11, when her father and brothers first noticed she had "the gift."

Since that discovery, the 41-year-old artist who now lives and works in the Diocese of Knoxville, has worked to refine the skill needed to create works of art in the Cuzco style unique to Peru. In fact, Bell is recognized as one of the first women to master the almost strictly male Cuzco School of Religious Art style.

Her creative efforts earned her a special showing recently at the Tennessee Arts Commission Gallery in Nashville. She also has had other exhibits, including at Atlanta's Eucharistic Congress, the Peruvian Consulate in Washington and Knoxville's Emporium Center.

"My inspiration for painting is God and the Virgin Mary. For a reason, God gave me this talent. And I feel called to paint these images," Bell told The East Tennessee Catholic, Knoxville's diocesan publication.

"These images" are richly detailed oil paintings of Jesus, Mary with the infant Jesus, saints, angels and other religious icons painted in gilded, detailed colors featuring gold leaf and a tooling effect in relief. Bell incorporates a special gold paint made from a closely guarded secret family recipe. It serves as the trademark relief of the Chavez Galdos clan.

Bell explained that the Cuzco style has been handed down among families for generations and is inherent in that region of Peru. It was introduced to Cuzco, the former capital of the Inca Empire, by an Italian artist who was a Jesuit priest, Father Bernardo Bitti, in the 16th century. He used his art for religious education and taught his brand of artistry to the faithful in the Andes Mountain region that is now Peru and Bolivia.

As the number of artists who embraced the Bitti technique rose and signature styles were added, such as by Quechua painter Diego Quispe Tito, these artists formed the Cuzco School of Religious Art and continued to spread the faith through this new Catholic ministry.

The art form has been gaining in popularity. A painting from one of the Cuzco School artists, Ignacio Chacon, was even featured on a 2006 U.S. Postal Service Christmas stamp.

Bell's father and brothers inherited the technique and applied the family's own style. As she watched them growing up and toyed with painting, her talent emerged. But it was almost unheard of for a female to engage in such a discipline.

"In my family, usually the men work outside the home and the women are in the kitchen. But I always felt I wanted to do this, so I started when I was 11. I just picked up a brush and started painting," she said.

Her father, who was an agricultural engineer, noticed the budding artist's gift and encouraged it. But as she grew older, her father insisted that she attend college if she was to continue painting. She agreed and graduated from the National University of San Antonio Abad in Cuzco with a degree in education.

And while she is a teacher by profession, her calling is art.

Her paintings, which are available to the public, line the walls of the Knoxville home she shares with her husband, Aaron Bell, and their 5-year-old son, Benjamin. As she gains acclaim for her work, she is asked to sell more of her art.

She and Aaron Bell met while he was traveling in Peru. After a long-distance relationship was formed, they were engaged and then married in 2006, when she left Peru to join her husband in east Tennessee. They were married in Our Lady of Mercy Catholic Church in Cuzco.

As a pioneering female in the male-dominated Cuzco School of Religious Art, Bell has influenced other women in the art. Her younger sister, Mari, has shown talent and has joined her brothers in painting for the family studio in Peru.

Now, with the siblings separated by age and location, they work independently.

And they hope to continue passing on their "gift" to the next generation.

Young Benjamin Bell already is showing signs of artistic talent and has a child's easel and paint from his father and mother.

"My family and I are heirs and successors to this wonderful style of art and are self-taught," she said. "The Cuzco School began as evangelism through art and facilitated the spread of the new faith. Art greatly supported the educational presentations of the monks and priests and was instrumental in the transformation of belief by the Quechua people from the worship of God in the form of the sun or Mother Earth to the more traditional Catholic faith.

"I am Catholic and my entire family in Peru is Catholic. The church is my influence."

Brewer is editor of The East Tennessee Catholic newspaper and magazine, publications of the Diocese of Knoxville.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2014