As a part of our on-going series, History of Influential Printmakers, I came across the work of James Lesesne Wells and I think you will agree, his legacy in printmaking helped to promote the work of hundreds of young artists and he furthered the field of printmaking, especially for the masses of African-Americans whose opportunity to see and purchase original works of art were limited.
James L. Wells was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1902, and raised in Florida. Wells’ artistic childhood was influenced by his parents’ religious beliefs, and his interest in teaching started as he helped his other run a daycare fro children. As a child, Wells used to stencil designs on the prayer meeting room walls of his father’s Baptist church and this lead him to study art. He attended the Florida Normal and Industrial Institute, Lincoln University, and eventually earned both his Bachelors and Masters degrees at the Teachers College of New York's Columbia University. He also studied one year at Stanley William Hayter's famed Atelier 17 workshop in New York.
Wells became a prolific printmaker and made his living for a time illustrating books and journals for the Crisis and Opportunity; two of the day's important black magazines. Wells forged friendships with black scholars, including philosopher Alain Locke and historian Carter G. Woodson. These connections also led him to book illustration. He moved to Washington D.C. in 1929 and began teaching art at Howard University, where he would remain for thirty nine years.
The Works Progress Administration used prints to make art available to the masses, this it was at this point Wells dedicated himself entirely to printmaking and developing his craft. Wells credited the impact of seeing a first ever exhibition of African sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art as changing the way he thought about art and how much it affected his style from that point on. Another major influence upon his work was a trip he took to West Africa after his retirement from Howard. the images he saw there emboldened his use of color and powerful images. He loved the raw power of German Expressionist woodcuts and Cubism's use of African sculpture and ceremonial masks toward abstraction. The themes of his work often revolved around mythological, religious, social/political messages, violence, seduction, and civil rights.
Wells' work addressed the history and experiences of African-Americans and the working class, and after Wells married Ophelia Davidson in 1933, he became active in anti-segregation protests in Washington D.C. because her brother,Eugene Davidson, was president of the local chapter of the NAACP.
Wells enjoyed numerous exhibits in galleries and museums worldwide, including the Corcoran, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Baltimore art museums, the Society of American Graphics in New York, Fisk University, a 50 year retrospective at Howard University,The Washington Project for the Arts and the Harlem Studio Museum.
James Lesesne Wells left a mark on the art world that goes beyond his own work as a painter and printmaker. He was also one of the earliest American artists to concentrate his efforts on printmaking.
Harmon Foundation, Gold Medal, 1931
Smithsonian Institution, First prize, Religious Art Exhibition, 1958
Van Der Zee Award, Afro-American History and Cultural Museum, 1977
Presidential citation by Jimmy Carter for lifelong contribution to American art, 1980
"James L. Wells Day" declared by Mayor Marion Barry, Washington DC, 1984
Living Legend Award, National Black Arts Festival, 1991