By Kelley Rickenbaker
He’s the Iron Man of Sandy Springs artists.
Jim Schell – illustrator, fine art portraitist, and long-time art teacher – is about to celebrate 30 years of mentoring and teaching Sandy Springs painters.
In February of next year, he’ll also celebrate his 95th birthday.
Schell, a native Atlantan, has lived in Sandy Springs since 1953. He, his wife Noemi, and their three children moved into the then-brand new neighborhood of Mount Vernon Woods because, “we really wanted to raise our girls in the country. And then, all of a sudden, the suburbs grew up around us.”
He began his art career as a 12-year-old in 1930, while working as a carrier for the old Atlanta Georgian newspaper. He demonstrated drawing talent, and was chosen as the illustrator for a junior version of the paper put out just for kids.
At 14, he spent a summer with a cousin in Detroit and had a chance to study at the Detroit Art Academy. He hasn’t stopped drawing and painting since.
He created the weekly Stars and Stripes cartoon “Occupation Outbursts” during the aftermath of World War II, while assigned to Tokyo with Gen. Douglas MacArthur’s staff. When he returned to Atlanta, he took up a career as a commercial illustrator. A few years later, he entered into a partnership with two others and worked for the next several decades at his own advertising firm.
During those early days on the north side of Atlanta, Schell remembers a very different Sandy Springs from the one he lives in today.
“We only had one car, and my wife needed it with the kids more than I did, so I used to take the bus into town. There was only one bus. It would pick us up in the morning right outside Burdette’s Grocery, and drop us off downtown,” Schell said.
“That usually worked really well, except sometimes the bus wouldn’t run. I remember once having to hitchhike with a neighbor all the way back home, riding in the back of a plumber’s pickup truck.”
Sandy Springs was really only a crossroads. “We had one gas station, a grocery, and a great hardware store. You paid your grocery bill once a month, everything you bought went on your account and you got little carbon copy receipts. There was only one elementary school, located at the current site of Mount Vernon Towers. That’s where my kids went to school.”
Schell was also a local volunteer fireman. It was the worst job he’s ever had, he says with a laugh.
“The firehouse was just off Roswell Road, just about at the Sandy Springs Place intersection, where the old Lummus Building Supply Company was located. We had to spend the night at the station a couple of evenings a month. When it was my turn, I was terrified there’d be a call. I’m hard of hearing, so I’d stay up all night just to make sure I didn’t miss something.”
As metro Atlanta boomed, Schell and his partners had a chance to sell their firm. Schell set his sights on a new career. His work as a freelance artist blossomed. His commercial work was sought after and his portraits now hang in boardrooms and fine homes across the area.
Schell started his third career – as a teacher – in the early 1980s. A circle of local artists began to paint together socially, then, as others in the community learned of their group, the requests to join started up. One thing led to another, and as the group of Sandy Springs artists sought to practice their craft together, they began using live models.
They first worked in a building by the Chattahoochee River on Azalea Drive. Later, they moved to the Abernathy Arts Center on Johnson Ferry Road.
“Jim Schell has become an amazing mentor to artists in Sandy Springs,” says Lauren Bernazza, program director at the Abernathy Arts Center. “His students are very loyal and his classes are always full. We’re lucky to have him.”
The weekly classes continue today and are still very popular. Many of his students have been members of his classes for 10 or 20 years. There is a lengthy waiting list, just in case space for a new student opens up.
And even though Schell moves a little more slowly now, his eye is still sharp, and his advice is right on point.
You can view Schell’s work on his web site at www.jimschellstudio.com.