Rodney Bell, a beloved East Bay community member and artist who contributed countless original illustrations to Street Spirit over the years, died at the age of 66 in October of 2021. His artwork captures the feeling in the lived reality of homelessness, and calls for compassion and love. We thank Rodney for his smile, spirit, and presence, as well as the way he uplifted our East Bay community as we continue to celebrate his life.A gifted musician and visual artist, Rodney first introduced himself to St. Mary’s Center (SMC) in Oakland by playing the piano during mealtimes. Of his wide musical repertoire, he most loved to play Nat King Cole songs such as Unforgettable, Smile, Nature Boy, Route 66 and The Very Thought of You.
In an article for the October 2013 issue of Street Spirit, Rodney spoke to former Editor Terry Messman about his love of the musician. “I just loved him because his spirit survived and shone through all the adversity of the times he went through, and he still was able to give us such rich music,” he said.
Like Cole, Rodney found meaning in his life “rising above adversity—still doing good things, still loving in spite of hate.” Rodney said, “It’s meaningful to play piano at St. Mary’s, to use music to comfort others and nurture themes we seniors here relate to like respect yourself and others.” Rodney infused St. Mary’s community center with comfort and sunshine, encouraging people to keep one’s head up and smile, even in hard times.
For Rodney, going through hard situations in life, such as homelessness, moved him to produce art. “Instead of stressing about my homeless condition, I decided to draw and express what I was feeling about how homeless persons are rejected in the community,” he said. He created art from direct knowledge and empathy for peoples’ experience of being unsheltered – of having no place to sleep, sit, or get out of the elements. In his artwork “Waiting” Rodney captures the exhaustion of waiting that consumes the lives of many homeless people. He sought to humanize and make visible the hardships faced by people without homes.
While staying in the shelter at St. Mary’s Center, he created the artwork titled “Homelessness Has Faces.” Rodney said what grabbed him about St. Mary’s Center was the fact that the people there are “concerned about the well-being of the person.”
His love of St. Mary’s Center inspired him to create his artwork titled “St. Mary’s Rocks.” He said of the program: “St. Mary’s has been very good for me, so I wanted to show my gratitude for them having the veteran’s program, helping me get housing, and talking to me like a human being. So for all those things, they rock!” St. Mary’s Center featured Rodney’s consciousness raising artwork in annual reports, newsletters, and holiday cards and displayed his art throughout the Center.
Rodney was featured in a video about the monument “Remember Them: Champions of Humanity” at Kaiser Memorial Park in Oakland. Rodney collaborated with Jesse Williams, a SMC community member, in creating this video honoring the moral courage of people who made significant contributions to peace, freedom and human rights. He mourned “that we have forgotten our connection to those before us,” and found being at the monument “conducive to my being uplifted, inspired, motivated, and changed.” Rodney reflected, “As I grapple with outer conditions in life that are for the worse, I become all the more moved to focus on inside changes for the better. In the worst times we are to be sweeter in nature, not bitter.”
Rodney advocated for neighborly concern and care for one another. He upheld a vision of all people being treated with dignity and respect, welcomed into true fellowship, and participating in creating democracy. He promoted a spirit of Love through service.
Throughout his life, Rodney was deeply called to humbly serve his Creator and the greater good! Rodney gave so much – loving kindly and shining light to comfort and uplift people, especially in hard times.
Susan Werner (LCSW) worked at St. Mary’s Center in Oakland as a social worker and creative arts facilitator from 1989 to 2021.Her calling is to contribute to community-based social justice work and the transformative healing arts.