Hazel Belvo returns with paintings full of joy, loss, growth

Although Hazel Belvo’s Drake Gallery Exhibit, Four Decades of Painting, covers selections of her work from 1974 to 2011, the story of her love of art reaches far before then.

Belvo taught in the art department at St. Paul Academy and Summit School from 1972 to 1989. Belvo’s art has been exhibited for 50 years and can be found in many collections including the Minneapolis Institute of Art and Minnesota Historical Society.

Along with Upper School Arts Department Chair Marty Nash, she is part of the Women’s Art Resources of Minnesota, a group for women artists. Belvo is also a retired chair of the Division of Fine Art at MCAD and an instructor at Grand Marais Art Colony, where artists gather from all over the world. She and her partner, Marcia Cushmore, share a studio in Minneapolis.

“I would say I am a storyteller and I like stories, I like narrative,” Belvo said. “So the paintings that you see here in this studio, they all have a story.”

For example, Belvo’s painting of a large tree, which hangs near the entrance of the gallery, depicts a certain tree on the North Shore, called the Spirit Tree by the Objiwas. The Spirit Tree has been the subject of many of Belvo’s paintings since 1961.

When Belvo was a little girl in the 1920’s and 1930’s, she lived on a farm that had a pond. The roots of trees around the pond often curved down into the water. Because of this, Belvo acquired special awe for trees in the early years of her life.

Belvo’s exhibit in the Drake Gallery tells the story of major changes in Belvo’s life, too. In the spring of 1972, Belvo’s oldest son died of leukemia. “One of the things that happened to me was that I couldn’t stand loud noises and everything was so raw in feeling,” Belvo said. “And I couldn’t stand strong color.” Because of this, most of Belvo’s paintings in the 70’s are almost all white.

Belvo didn’t begin to paint with vibrant colors again until the hospital where Belvo’s son passed away later commissioned her for a painting. “Color has always been really instrumental in my work; maybe one of the main focuses of the visual language is color,” Belvo said.

Belvo says people might call her an “old-fashioned painter.” “I think of [painting] as carving out the surface, what you want to do is give the surface life… and I can do it with a brush better than anything else, I think,” she said.

To Belvo, art is “making something that wasn’t there, making something internal become external so that you can see your inner life.”

“My whole life is about art; it’s such a privilege,” she said. The most magical aspect of being an artist is how fast time flies as she works. “You go in a studio and pick up a brush, maybe it’s ten o’clock in the morning. Before you know it, it’s three o’clock in the afternoon, and you don’t know what happened, it’s just all there in front of you,” Belvo said.

Aside from her studio in Minneapolis, Belvo also paints at a house on Lake Superior with her partner for five months every year. There, she can experience the riches of nature as much as possible, especially because it allows her to “have one foot on land and one foot in the water,” Belvo said. “Being in the house is like being on a ship.”

Belvo’s exhibit in the Drake Gallery began Nov. 1 and will end Nov. 30. She’s excited to be back at St. Paul Academy and Summit School and see some of the people who have been part of the SPA community since she worked here.

Currently, Belvo is also painting a series of 22 paintings called Resurrection that she hopes to find a venue for. Additionally, she has a show at the Bockley Gallery in the April and May of next year that will showcase many of her works on trees.

Belvo co-creates the Art Department

Imagine stepping 40 years back through time and walking through the art hallway. Instead of pots clicking against each other on a shelf and easel after easel of student work, there was barely anything but a Shakespeare room on one side and a few tables. No one took art classes, and the idea of an art department was still fresh and new.

Tom Reed, the headmaster of St. Paul Academy and Summit School at that time, had heard of Belvo’s work at the Bunting Institute at Harvard. Reed asked for her help in building a fine arts department for the school, and Belvo agreed.

Belvo arrived at SPA in 1972, and with current Upper School Ceramics teacher Bob Jewett, pioneered an artistic revolution at SPA that lasts to today. Some of their goals were to “equip the studio as if it was going to be a professional studio and treat our students as if they were going to be artists,” Jewett said.

Soon, art classes were set up, and students began to win competitions. Other private schools, such as Blake, Breck, and Mounds Park Academy, sought to model their art department after SPA’s. “I would say [Belvo]’s a genius at teaching kids how to draw and tap into their inner selves,” Jewett said. “We were young and so there was a tremendous sense of enthusiasm and energy.”

Mentoring others has always had a special place in Belvo’s heart. “I love teaching, because I think teaching and making art is like one and the same,” she said.

Because of what Jewett described as “her steadfast belief in herself as an artist,” Belvo organized ways for artists to come in and talk to students. Art festivals occurred in which professionals, ranging from potters to glass blowers, set up demonstrations in the courtyard and raised money for the school.

Belvo also helped students paint the Adam and Eve mural in the lower library, which many students walk by today. “There was a real shared sense of purpose and what was important and that kind of focus has continued on,” Jewett said. In 1989, Belvo left SPA to teach at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD).

“I loved every year, every bit of the time I spent at St. Paul Academy.” Belvo said. “It was very hard to leave.”