“I’m a man of simple needs. My interest has been primarily in my art and as long as I made enough to get by, I was satisfied.”
These are the simple yet poignant words of graphic artist and teacher, James Wells, an influential figure in 20th century art. True to his words, offered to the Washington Post in February 1977, Wells focused his 60-year art career on expressing himself freely and teaching others more than striving for popularity or commercial success. Consistently, his influence on generations of artists was substantial, including the likes of Elizabeth Catlett and other prominent artists of the 20th century.
Born in Atlanta in 1901, Wells’ family soon relocated to Florida. As a young teen, Wells won top prizes in painting and woodworking at the Florida State Fair before attending Lincoln University and subsequently transferring to Columbia University. In New York, he was particularly inspired by an African sculpture exhibit at the Brooklyn Museum and, more broadly, by the printmaking and woodcuts of 15th century artist, Albrecht Durer, and the German Expressionists of the 1920s.
Printmaking became his passion. Though many of his peers saw little value in this art form, Wells nonetheless made a name for himself during the Harlem Renaissance. Upon graduating from Columbia, he created block prints to highlight Negro life from the articles and publications of the day. In 1929, he was hired by Howard University to teach crafts, ceramics, sculpture, and clay modeling along with metal and block printing.
During the Civil Rights Era, Wells protested segregation along with his Howard students at lunch counters and police departments. Like his students, he was harassed and threatened. These experiences further impacted his art as he incorporated more social and religious themes. In turn, his art would impact others, earning him numerous honors throughout his teaching career and after his 1968 retirement from Howard. Among them were major exhibitions and retrospectives at the Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum, the Smithsonian, Howard University, and Fisk University, along with a 1980 Presidential Citation for Lifelong Contribution to American Art from President Jimmy Carter.
Yet, even with his accomplishments, the late Wells ultimately felt that the artist’s primary responsibility is to himself.
“My belief is that art has a social message and should be expressive of the artist’s reaction to society,” Wells told the Washington Post. “But first there’s always the esthetic of joy and happiness for the perpetrator of the art.”
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