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Local Artist Paints in Words

Michael Bell’s new book explores life as teacher, artist and parent

Author and teacher, Michael Bell. Below: Tony Acevedo, Arthur Neal and coach Autumn Wolf of Kicked Up ­Fitness with the young boxer “Lil’ C”.
     Michael Bell is no stranger to success. The Southern High School arts department chair and celebrity artist has catapulted the school’s art program into the national spotlight over the last 22 years, winning major awards annually and transforming the lives of his students.
     “My art department at Southern is almost like the Lakers of the old days,” Bell told me. “We keep winning, and people keep waiting for us to not win anymore. It’s hard to remain at that level, but that challenge fuels me. I’m thinking what can we top next? How do we keep it going?”
     The New Jersey native’s own art portfolio is full of works attached to big names, such as John Gotti Jr., Dominic Capone and The Sopranos cast.
But it was the quiet, private struggles within his own family that inspired his latest work, Dual Lives: From the Streets to the Studio.
     The book began to inspire community involvement in local arts, springing from the story of how Bell built the arts program at Southern. Along the way, it transformed into a memoir of his many roles as teacher, artist and parent of a child with autism.
     “This book happened for great reasons and for tragic reasons, the perfect storm of events all at once,” Bell said. “Our eight-year-old son was diagnosed with autism.”
     Unsure of what to do, Bell painted the words I Believe in Me above son Carmen’s door. He wrote a post on the website Autism Speaks: “I have accomplished more than I ever dreamt of, but I wonder about how my son’s dreams are going to come true.”
     And he signed his son up for boxing, Bell said, “so he could handle himself against bullies in school.”
     Not one to put his son through something he wouldn’t do himself, Bell laced up alongside him. In the boxing ring, he found a community. “They’ve become like family members,” he says of the Kicked Up Fitness trainers. “They treated him like their own kid. They gave him the nickname Lil’ C.”
     The experience was transformative, for Bell also discovered the foundation of a strong father and son relationship.
     “My grandfather was a boxer, so I was already a little familiar with the sport,” he said. “How much it would change my autistic son, I had no idea. I now understand exactly who he is and what makes him unique.” 
     The next step was “sharing his story with the world, especially anyone with special-needs children and educators who need some inspiration.” Hence the book.
     Bell signs copies of Dual Lives at Kicked Up Fitness September 23 at noon, followed by a boxing demo between his son Lil’ C and coach Autumn Wolf.