The story goes that, for the majority of her 70 years—despite selling her first work of art to a junior high school teacher at age 13—Della Wells did not want to be a professional artist.
“I always thought artists didn’t make any money,” acknowledges Wells who, growing up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, “wanted to be a fashion designer, because I was really into fashion.” Even so, her art teachers at school recognized her talent, including one who had her class drawing cowbells and cockroaches. “In my 12 and 13 year-old mind, I thought that man was crazy,” recalls Wells, noting “I didn’t understand until much later that he was talking about seeing the beauty in all things.”
Today, countless others see beauty in the things Wells creates. Since beginning her art career at age 42, Wells’ work has graced galleries across the country and in Europe. It has appeared in several publications including Evelyn Patricia Terry’s Permission To Paint Please: A 150 Year History of African American Artists in Wisconsin, and Betty-Carol Sellen’s Self-Taught, Outsider and Folk Art: A Guide to American Artists, Locations and Resources. Wells’ life and art were also featured in the stage play, “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly,” performed at venues in her home state of Wisconsin and at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C.
But let’s not get ahead of the story since Wells’ career success, in significant part, can be attributed to her indelible childhood encounters with fantasy, myths, and, yes, a chicken.
First, the fantasy. Wells, who considers herself a storyteller at least as much as an artist, was prompted to create many of the colorful stories, images, and characters that are present in her collages from her mother’s recollections of growing up in North Carolina during the first half of the 20th century. Her mother depicted vivid accounts of rural life in the South, of friends and family, of dramatic events and relationships, of heroes and villains. Such rich imagery would have a lasting impact on the young Wells, her creativity, and, ultimately, her art.
Next, the myths. Many of these accounts were untrue. “My mother really didn’t have a very happy childhood,” says Wells, revealing the family matriarch suffered from undiagnosed schizophrenia that went untreated for two decades. “She used to tell me these fabulous stories about her childhood,” remembers the artist. “And then, many years later, I found out that they weren’t true.” Angered by his spouse’s erratic behavior and its impact on his engineering career and aspirations to become a writer, Wells’ father nonetheless instilled the value of education in his eight children while further expanding the scope of Wells’ imagination by regularly bringing books home. “My father blamed my mother for a lot of stuff, and he would also blame some of my siblings for his problems,” she recounts, noting “it’s easy to take stuff out on your family, particularly when you can’t take it out on the outside world.” However, despite his harshness, “our father actively pushed education, and one of my brothers got a degree in chemistry, another got a full scholarship at Dartmouth and has a degree in mathematics, and another is an accountant.” So, continues Wells, “I think his harshness helped them succeed.”
Finally, the chicken. “When my father got paid, he would bring home treats. Sometimes it would be baloney sandwiches, donuts, liver, liverwurst,” says Wells. “This particular time, he brought home a chicken, and I had to be about seven or eight years old, so I thought my daddy had brought us a pet. I was happy.”
Not for long. “I was wrong. My mother killed that chicken right in front of me,” wringing its neck as the body bounced about the kitchen. Horrified, the young Wells screamed and sought refuge under her bed. It didn’t help that the deceased bird was on the menu that evening. “I refused to eat chicken for a long time,” she reports, and “that was one of the first truths I learned in life, that some things had to die for other things to live.”
“I used to think food came in nice, neat little packages,” continues Wells. “I didn’t know they were killing stuff and it really scared me.” Later, in her work, the chicken became a symbol simultaneously representing one’s truths and fears, particularly in a country where Black youth coming of age are regularly presented with the harsh realities of death and survival. “It was a very important lesson for me to learn because I would have kept on believing in these fairytales.”
As she grew, such harsh realization combined with her troubled home life to challenge the struggling teen. “I was an angry young woman,” acknowledges Wells. “I would never mess with people but, if anybody messed with me, I was gonna make it worse. And that’s because I grew up in a dysfunctional family with my mother being sick.” Still, Wells was fascinated with books. “I used to read a lot of fairy tales, but I used to think my life wasn’t no fairy tale,” she says, pointing out that, because of such negative feelings, “I didn’t feel empowered. I think about that a lot in my work and particularly about the empowerment of Black women, because I felt my mother didn’t feel empowered as well.”
This began to shift for Wells upon meeting and engaging with other people, particularly at age 19, when Wells happened to stop by a Milwaukee-based venue called Gallery Toward the Black Aesthetic. “That was the first time I actually learned that there were Black artists,” she reveals, noting prior to that, “all I knew about were white men and white women artists.” Despite the connection, “I still wasn’t making art, but the reason why I wasn’t was that I didn’t have the patience to do it and I didn’t have anything serious to say.”
Two decades later—after working various jobs, writing, and years of schooling in sociology, psychology, women’s studies, and African American studies—this would change. At 42, Wells began using art to speak to her life experiences, her disposition as a Black woman, and “this imaginary land because, to me, America is all about fairytales. They tell you George Washington didn’t tell a lie, but that’s a big lie.” The country is steeped in such lies “so I decided I’m gonna create my own world where Black women rule. And instead of getting mad, now I create a piece of art.”
She does it well. “The first time I saw her work, at that time and even now, I felt it was very reminiscent of Romare Bearden’s work,” says fellow artist, Mutope Johnson, who literally met Wells by accident at a Milwaukee gallery in the late 90s. While “gallery-hopping” on a lunchbreak from his downtown job, Johnson visited the David Barnett gallery “not knowing what to expect. I saw this body of work that she had, which was a collection of collages and pastels. And as I was walking the gallery and turned the corner, I practically ran right into her,” laughs the Milwaukee-based painter, curator, and art educator who grew up in the same Bronzeville neighborhood as Wells. Describing her work in that initial conversation, an impressed Johnson told Wells, “You’re like a female version of Romare Bearden.”
The two artists stayed in touch and, not long after, in 2001, Wells, along with Johnson, fellow Milwaukee artist Evelyn Patricia Terry, and several others formed ABEA (African-Americans Beginning to Educate Americans about African-American Art). The group was launched to promote and advocate for Black artists while educating communities about them, their cultural significance, and their work. “We would often hear that the general population could not find African-American artists,” says Johnson, that, allegedly, “they could not locate us and didn’t know where we exhibited. So this stigma was placed on us when I don’t think they were really trying.” With ABEA, “we embarked on this journey to really share our work with people who said they couldn’t find us. And that’s how our close-knit arts community began to grow” in Milwaukee, “specifically a group of African-American artists.”
Like Johnson, Evelyn Patricia Terry, who credits Wells as the major force behind ABEA, had an impressionable first encounter with her longtime friend and artistic colleague as well. “I had seen her around and didn’t really know her, but she came to an exhibition,” recalls Terry of that special day in Milwaukee in 1991. “I had an installation and the people who visited the gallery were encouraged to write on pieces of paper what they felt, because many people would feel things about my installations and they’d be angry or have some other emotions,” reports the prominent painter, printmaker, and mixed media artist. “So I always had them write it out.” But instead of making a comment, “Della drew a picture of a woman birthing a child,” laughs Terry. “I was like, oh my God, who is this person? So then I was very interested because I knew whoever it was, they were an artist.” Terry soon invited Wells to her studio and asked her to draw a picture. “She decided to draw a mermaid and she filled up the whole paper,” remembers Terry, noting “most people don’t do that. Della filled it up and did two of them, and they were beautiful, with pastels. So I was like, wow, who are you?”
“I knew she was an artist, but she hadn’t really been out there,” continues Terry. “And now, she’s finally, like, everywhere and doing extremely well with a lot of commissions, articles, and sales. She’s phenomenal.”
What’s also phenomenal is Wells’ ability to take her childhood fairytales and fantasies, her mother’s myths, and her own life lessons and tell compelling stories through her art, ones simultaneously unique, provocative, impactful, and ultimately—like Mamboland—magical. And, fortunately, these magical stories are far from over as Wells is currently focused on the circle of life and the apparent parallels it presents as our struggling society moves forward.
“What’s going on politically in this country right now is really influencing a lot of work that I do,” reports Wells. “You know, I’m 70 now, and I think we’re at a significant moment, and it reminds me of when I was a teenager and a young woman,” she says. “It was the same sort of turmoil.” Back then, like recently, “people wanted to call them ‘riots’ but I call them rebellions. There were protests then, and I’m seeing the similarities and it is really influencing the narrative.”
So, adds Wells, “I’m going to create my own narrative about what has happened, particularly from the perception of a Black woman.”