Jean-Paul Bell, founder of Clown Doctors, loves his life in Murrurundi

Artist Mia Galo painted Jean-Paul for the Archibald Prize. Today it hangs in the front bedroom at Murrurundi. Photo: Nicola Sevitt
Artist Mia Galo painted Jean-Paul for the Archibald Prize. Today it hangs in the front bedroom at Murrurundi. Photo: Nicola Sevitt

There's a sign leaning against a weathered white wall on the deck of a small workers' cottage in the town of Murrurundi in NSW's Upper Hunter.

It's a little faded after a few years in the sun and some of the words have almost disappeared but as I lean in a little closer, I can just make them out: "Life is too short to be serious all the time".

Jean-Paul Bell, one of Australia's best known mime artists, has shaped his life around this sentiment so it's no surprise to discover the other quirky installations dotted around this block on one of Murrurundi's side streets. The first, a nameplate 'Whimsy' greets you at the front door. "I called it that because to me it is such a storybook cottage."

A LIFE IN WHIMSY: The sign which sums it up, the Bakelite telephone and a taste of travel.

A LIFE IN WHIMSY: The sign which sums it up, the Bakelite telephone and a taste of travel.

"Perhaps it's because of my mother's English background, but I've always had a bit of a panache for little cottages with white picket fences," he explains with a wry smile. "I think moving around a lot as a kid, and we lived in a lot of different houses, gave me a great love of architecture and this is a classic workers' cottage."

The 69-year-old first came to Murrurundi in the early 1980s.

"I was on my way to Tamworth to do some shows and thought I would stay within striking distance," explains the man who helped establish Clown Doctors, a group of performers dedicated to visiting hospitals, in 1997.

"So I trundled into Murrurundi and stayed at the White Hart Hotel. It was very cheap, something like $14 a night. I checked in and then I wandered around town. I thought, I like this place."

TURNING BACK THE YEAR: The television sitting in the corner of the parlour, I never call it a lounge room is a 1956 Astor and similar to one owned by Jean-Paul's family when he was a child. It moved with us from house to house. The routine was to take the Astor to the next location with my younger sister and three younger brothers, plug it into a corner and leave them watching while we got more of the furniture and backfilled the house behind them. We were a well-oiled machine.

TURNING BACK THE YEAR: The television sitting in the corner of the parlour, I never call it a lounge room is a 1956 Astor and similar to one owned by Jean-Paul's family when he was a child. It moved with us from house to house. The routine was to take the Astor to the next location with my younger sister and three younger brothers, plug it into a corner and leave them watching while we got more of the furniture and backfilled the house behind them. We were a well-oiled machine.

In fact, the grandfather of five - "they range in age from three to 22, it's wonderful" - liked it so much that Murrurundi quickly became a regular stop on his trips up and down the New England Highway. But it was to take nearly 40 years before Jean-Paul finally became a local when he bought the house in April 2014.

"I was just in love with it. It took me six months to lift my head to look at the ranges outside the back door and then I thought, god if you were a painter, you would love to live in this town."

LUNCH, ANYBODY?: Having fun in the kitchen.

LUNCH, ANYBODY?: Having fun in the kitchen.

After living in Sydney's northern beaches and Newcastle for many years, Jean-Paul's decision to move to the country perplexed some but he was no stranger to rural life. As a 14-year-old living in the country town, St Andrews in Victoria, he had decided to become a performer.

"My father was mainly a travelling salesman and we moved 117 times - my siblings and I counted them up one night as most of us couldn't remember them all. I went to 20 different primary schools and seven high schools. But I loved St Andrews, it was a fantastic little town, and I joined the local arts association there which eventually led me into theatre."

Jean-Paul's work has taken him around the world to some unusual places - two trips were even the subject of documentaries 2009's Honeymoon to Kabul in 2009 and Stumbling in Hillary's Footsteps in 2013 - but the community spirit of this little town has captured his heart.

"I love to go travelling in my little van. I'm lucky to have the most wonderful - and zealous - neighbour, Neil. Anyone comes near the house, I get a report. He's a former bus driver who doesn't want to go anywhere, anymore. It's a great community here which is nice, you just wouldn't get this in the city."

Jean-Pauls props are never too far away. The suitcase contains a fake mandolin it collapses into several mandolins like a pack of cards and a battery operated elephant used when he performed a vaudeville clown character Astor Mascarpone in his 2017 show Just Desserts.

Jean-Pauls props are never too far away. The suitcase contains a fake mandolin it collapses into several mandolins like a pack of cards and a battery operated elephant used when he performed a vaudeville clown character Astor Mascarpone in his 2017 show Just Desserts.

Jean-Paul's Address Book

White Hart Hotel

The place Jean-Paul stayed on his first visit to Murrurundi. 46 Mayne Street. Phone: (02) 6546 6242. whiteharthotel.com.au

Paradise Park

"The walk I love to do, and it takes about two hours, is to Paradise Park. A walk through The Eye Of The Needle also gives you a great view over town."

Passed On

A second-hand shop run by Jean-Paul and friend Dorothy Cleary. "I wanted to call it Dead People's Stuff after a shop I'd seen in Canada but she thought it was a bit too much." 52 Mayne Street.

Fox's Store

Housed in the old Haydonton General Store, this is the place to stop for a milkshake and a browse through a fascinating collection of antiques. 45 Haydon Street.

Darcy and the Fox

Archibald Prize finalist and People's Choice winner David Darchy moved to Murrurundi several years ago. His gallery shop "is full of interesting things. Great flowers and bush memorabilia," says Jean-Paul. "David's studio is right next door and you can often see him working on his latest painting." 37 Mayne Street. 0405 817 174. darcyandthefox@gmail.com

This article first appeared in the Murrurundi Argus, published by Michael Reid. The Argus evolved out of a desire to share the expansive tales and fables of those living regionally in the Upper Hunter of New South Wales and beyond. www.michaelreidmurrurundi.com.au