- James L. Wells
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James Lesesne Wells was an educator, painter, printmaker, and designer, who taught legions of students at Howard University and elsewhere, many of whom are now major artists, curators, arts administrators and—as was their master-teacher—educators themselves. There is no doubt that many of those thousands of men and women James Wells taught would agree with Richard J. Powell, one of Wells's mentees, when he proclaimed in James Lesesne Wells: Sixty Years in Art, that "Mr. Wells has printed, painted, sculpted, molded, taught, witnessed, stood up, and envisioned much, and it is a blessing that we can share in the fruits of this life-long harvest." In the conclusion to his 1986 essay, "Phoenix Ascending: The Art of James Lesesne Wells," James Lesesne Wells: Sixty Years in Art, Powell writes that during
the 39 years that Wells taught at Howard University, he instructed over two thousand students in printmaking, ceramics, drawing, and art education. His tenure at Howard along with his teaching stints at the Harlem Art Workshop, the Civilian Conservation Corps camp in Pennsylvania, the Smithsonian Institution, and privately in his Washington studio, have put him in touch with a variety of students: young, old, amateur, professional, and of many racial and ethnic backgrounds …
That James L. Wells was what was called a dedicated "race man" goes without saying. His tireless efforts to "uplift the race" through education and printmaking instead of focusing on his own career are a dynamic testimony that underscores his sincere mission. He had the talent and the potential of becoming an international figure, but as a true "race man" he made a profound and selfless sacrifice by dedicating his life's work to uplifting African Americans.
One should not conclude, however, that as a practicing "race man" Wells gave up his devotion to creating excellence in the production of art. Quite the contrary: as he supported and defended the struggling majority of black citizens (and he never forgot that he was one of them) against the domination and dehumanization imposed on them by the white ruling class, he never compromised the aesthetics of visual art making, even when he left painting for printmaking. In short, he did not create protest art. Instead, he created art in which all people could see themselves and affirm and respect their common humanity. He always saw art as human metaphor, whose aesthetic demands a devotion to its craft. James Wells always remained an artist, even as he engaged in social and political activism. As Jacob Kainen observed in the foreword to Paintings and Prints by James L. Wells (1965),
Wells is more than an artist with a deep concern for his fellow man. He carries many of his themes a step further into an apocalyptic world, a world of revelation and shifting lights. He is a knowledgeable painter deriving from the social scene art of the thirties, but also from certain aspects of Cubism and German Expressionism … Instead of the neat illustrative technique and small format usually associated with wood engraving, Wells works on large blocks in a bold free style. He is not interested in the virtuoso production of tones and textures, but in rich contrasts of lights and darks. His work has a vigor, therefore, that is not often used in the medium today.
Wells's example, as artist, is one that some of today's new and emerging artists of various kinds and genres might do well to emulate. Writing in his "Appreciation" for the publication of Wells: Sixty Years, Kainen, who had also been closely following and commenting on Wells's artwork for a number of years, observed that as the artist aged, "he has become wilder, and [End Page 1062] more visionary. Certainly, his late color linoleum prints are among the more memorable ones made recently in this country."
What is the path—or what are the paths—that led this older man to become "wilder" and "visionary"? There is (are) no clear or outlined path(s). But there are moments in...