When Aaron Bell talks about the forest, his eyes light up with the zeal of a minister mid-Sunday sermon.
"I've spent a lot of my life hiking; I'm fascinated by the forest, I really am ... There's just a spiritual feeling and a harmony there that you don't get elsewhere, especially when you're alone."
On a recent weekday evening Bell had just driven in from Idaho City, where he and his wife, Shelly, built a couple of cabins on a hillside surrounded by towering pines. In jeans and a black-and-white flannel shirt, Bell looked every bit the rugged Idaho woodsman--or possibly a character who had just trudged out of his own snowy black-and-white watercolor landscapes.
A land surveyor by day, Bell is reluctant to call himself an artist.
"I have no training in any of this. I just bought high-end watercolors and paints and canvas and started painting and that's what happened," he said, gesturing to a collection of prints on display at the Green Chutes artist's co-op.
Bell started with more textbook watercolor subject matter--"the Mediterranean villas with the bougainvilleas and the blue door and stucco"--but eventually found himself drawn to the moonlit mountain outside his cabin window.
"A year ago, I sat down [and thought], 'I wonder if I can recreate what's out back there?' Because in the back of my head I kept saying, 'paint this, paint this hill,'" Bell said. "So I got the watercolors back out and I sat down and I just started painting."
What came out were a series of stark black-and-white landscapes with pine trees casting dramatic shadows on mounds of snow under a glowing moon. The paintings feel chillingly isolated, yet they're somehow imbued with all of the mysticism and reverence Bell holds for the forest.
"I've had people say that because it's wintertime, because it's nighttime, there's a cold, lonely feeling. But at the same time, the trees and the shadows create this warmth," said Bell.
But the view from his cabin wasn't Bell's only inspiration. Another recent forest experience left an indelible mark on his memory.
"We went up to a forest southeast of Red Fish Lake and it had burned the entire forest so that all that was left were these dead standing pine trees and they were all charred black," said Bell. "We drove through there as it was just getting light and it was the weirdest eerie, haunting, tragic beauty. It was 15 miles of dead pine trees. No green, no foliage. The branches were there but they were charred. It was like being in some black-and-white film because there was no color anywhere. The trees [I paint], that's why they don't have any foliage on them. I tried to capture the shadows that kick off the mountain behind our little cabin and the trees that I saw that morning in that forest."
Though he never intended to show his work publicly, Bell's friend and art enthusiast Rae Bennett saw something special in it.
"I was over there one day and he said, 'You know, I do art a little bit, too,'" Bennett remembered. "I said, 'You do?' This is after knowing him three years before he volunteered that."
She continued: "He put three pieces that he had done--actually number one, two and three--up on the mantle. With the different light, it showed different ways and gave it a different mood. I looked at that and said, 'You know, you should be showing your work.'"
Bennett helped get Bell into Green Chutes and on the bill for the RAW: Natural Born Artists showcase in October. She has also been selling his work on greeting cards and pushing prints out to her art world contacts on both coasts.
"I've sold over 80 prints now across the United States, mostly to corporate investors," said Bennett.
Bennett's longtime partner, Jim Moyer, is also an artist. He told Bell that his lack of formal training has been a major asset to his creations.
"Rather than put a lot of water in and doing soft, washed out watercolors, I'm putting paint and a tiny bit of water so that it's really thick," said Bell. "[Moyer] said, 'In school, they would've told you not to do that; they would've told you to move to oil. ... Because of your lack of having been told you can't do something, this is why you've created this unique look.'"
Bell is currently working on the ninth painting in his series of 12 black-and-white landscapes. But he's not stuck in the snow. Bell hopes to expand his color palette and experiment with depicting other seasons.
"What I'd like to do is maybe transition into more of the alluvial fans, where the mountains in the background have a little more contour in them and start to bring some color, maybe some brown, maybe fall," said Bell.
But for now, Bell's work is striking a chord locally with outdoor enthusiasts. One woman told Bell his paintings are reminiscent of the view from her parents' cabin when she was growing up.
"Every time she looks at this, it takes her back to her childhood," said Bell, smiling. "It's this really humbling feeling that people are looking at these things and finding something in them."
Bennett agreed. Bell's work has the ability to transport viewers to the middle of the forest, standing quietly alone while the pine tree shadows creep out onto the blanketing snow.
"I think that people look at it and go, 'Wow, I could see myself being there,'" said Bennett.