When artist Joy Bell’s children, Rosie and Alec, grew up and left their home in the countryside west of Warkworth, this empty nester had the luxury of reassessing her future. Why not stay at home and work on long-deferred creative ideas? And maybe the house too. Raising a family on an artist’s often precarious income had meant parking unfinished tasks while she focused on new commissions.
Joy started out as a teenage epigraphist, chiseling tombstones. Art school wasn’t for her, so she quit to work as a graphic designer. In 1983 she opened an art gallery on Auckland’s Ponsonby Rd which grew into an antique shop where Joy taught herself how to restore anything and everything.
Business was good, but after 12 years she wanted a change from city life. By selling her collection of antique teddy bears, she funded a crazy house on a lot about an hour north of Auckland. Built in 1886 as a rural school, it became a church, then a private cottage and Joy fell in love at first sight.
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Staying true to her Victorian origins – an era she reveres – she embarked on restoration rather than modernization, painting the walls in the historic ‘railroad’ colors of dark green and rich red using decoupage on the black walls in the dining room. Some call it a dollhouse, and it’s tiny, but it helps that Joy isn’t tall. And that she loves every quirky corner.
After the children arrived, working from home became a necessity, “and I began selling art in markets, fairs and galleries…including gilded decoupage vases, assemblages of found objects and mosaics”.
She wrote the book Mosaics with Elizabeth Atkins-Hood, furnished her garden with excellent examples of patio furniture and garden art, and public contracts began to roll in. The clock tower at Warkworth? Joy did that. A 23 meter high shrine wall for the children’s shrine in Waikumete Cemetery? One of their proudest achievements.
As for the newer parts of this old house, you won’t find anything really new; It is mostly recycled junk and treasures. “I’m a very practical person and I hate waste. I’ve always been frugal.” Add to that her determination to DDIY (definitely make it yourself) and Joy’s craftsmanship is everywhere. “I prefer to be seen as a tradition,” she says. “I despair of the demands of the art world.”
The once-battered kitchen countertop now features a granite mosaic top with agate slices, inlaid silver brooches, and disco lights. Cheerfully eccentric, it’s also a nice place to have a cup of coffee.
Years ago she sketched the outline of a peacock on the wall above her clawfoot enamel bath. It’s now an iridescent, two-dimensional, mosaic-tiled bird, vibrant with color, its tail feathers almost dangling in the water. Here, Joy showers on a pebble-lined surface… the enamel had seen better days, she explains, so she grabbed a box of rocks from her work shed.
Elsewhere cheerful colors dominate, and then there’s her new staircase and glass room, both created since the house was first featured in NZ House & Garden in 2012. The glass room was once a neglected porch exposed to the prevailing westerly winds – now it is fenced off and sunny.
The idea came about when she salvaged some industrial glass panes that fit perfectly between the posts. Glass walls are nothing new, but Joy’s method is a breakthrough: she has developed a way to make a weatherproof wall out of three-dimensional glass objects. And when the beaded curtains are drawn, her beautifully lit crystal palace/porch is cozy and warm.
She might be joined there by some of her orphans and strays: TV-loving pet lory Dora the Explorer, or rescued mixed-breed terriers Bella and Frankie. Then there is a former wild Kaimanawa horse Mustang Sally in the home paddock.
She’s even taught herself taxidermy so she can breathe new life into a freezer full of “sheep testicles, rabbits, incredible birds” as art objects.
Joy’s mantra: “I love taking an everyday object and glorifying it, turning something ordinary into extraordinary.”
Her art studio is reached via the new stone staircase, notable for its busy menagerie. It’s a sculptural feat, prompted by her urge to cover the rough-sawn wood with stone for a more English look.
Once in her studio, she says, “I never feel the need for company or conversation. I could lock the door and throw away the key. Sometimes I feel like life gets in the way of art.” But when daughter Rosie comes to visit, they work together on Joy’s latest venture and record how-to workshops for YouTube. Joy calls this her legacy project.
It helps that she doesn’t sleep much. “I wake up with my eyes wide open and I’m like, ‘What is Joy going to do today?’ There are so many wonderful things to do. And there is no time like the present.”
Questions and Answers with Joy Bell
The best thing about the rebuild: People’s reaction… real joy.
Next change: Absolutely nothing – after 26 years it’s finally perfect. In the next 5-10 years: I want to do exactly what I’m doing right now.
Favorite hobby: Washing my 160-thread-count beaded curtain and then making it sparkle.
Least Favorite Task: Any cleaning that disturbs my useful spiders.
Favorite local store: Julie’s Animal Refuge Op Shop on Kaipara Flats Rd (open Wednesday mornings only) – Best shopping in town.
Favorite local restaurant: The Puhoi Pub Hotel & Stables for lunch, cider and a trip back in time.