Wells, James Lesesne 1902-1993
James Lesesne Wells 1902-1993
James Lesesne Wells left a mark on the art world that goes beyond his own work as a painter and printmaker. In the 39 years he spent teaching art at Howard University, Wells helped mold the skills and launch the careers of a generation of African American artists. Wells’s work itself was pioneering in its use of African influences. He was also one of the earliest American artists to concentrate his efforts on printmaking. In making that choice, Wells sacrificed much of the acclaim he would have likely received as a painter in order to create reproducible works of art that he hoped would be accessible to ordinary working people, African Americans in particular, to whom fine art has long been unavailable because of financial constraints.
James Lesesne Wells was born in Atlanta in 1902, the son of a Baptist minister and a kindergarten teacher. Wells’s mother, Hortensia Lesesne Wells, encouraged him to explore art at an early age. When the Reverend died in 1912, Hortensia Wells opened a day-care center, where art made up a healthy portion of the curriculum. It was here that James got his first taste of life as an educator, serving as his mother’s unofficial teaching assistant. His main duty was to help the youngsters develop their drawing skills.
Wells attended high school at the Florida Normal and Industrial Institute, a Baptist school in Jacksonville. He received a scholarship because of his family’s affiliation with the church. While there, Wells’s talents became clear, and while a student he won several awards for drawing and woodworking at the Florida State Fair. After graduating, Wells moved to New York City. His intention was to work for the summer while staying with relatives, then enroll in Lincoln University in Pennsylvania. Instead, due to a lack of funds, he ended up staying in New York for two years, studying for one term at the National Academy of Design under George Laurence Nelson.
When Wells finally made it to Lincoln University in the fall of 1922, he discovered that it had no art program. After a year at Lincoln, he returned to New York, where he transferred to Columbia University’s Teachers College and majored in art education. Living in New York, Wells was able to take advantage of the city’s extensive art offerings, as well as take part in the thriving culture of Manhattan’s Harlem. In 1923 Wells attended an exhibition of African sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art, one of New York’s first showings ever of African
Born November 2, 1902, in Atlanta, GA; son of Frederick W, (a Baptist pastor) and Hortensia Ruth Lesesne (a kindergarten teacher) Wells; married Ophelia Davidson (a high school teacher), 1933 (died, 1969); children: James Lesesne, jr. Bdutation: Attended National Academy of Design, 1918-19; attended Lincoln University, 1921-22; Columbia University, B.S., 1927, M.S. 1938; attended Atelier 17 workshop, 1948-49. Religion: Baptist
Painter and printmaker, 1921-93, with numerous exhibtts in galleries and museums worldwide, including the Corcoran, Brooklyn, Philadelphia, and Baltimore art museums and the Smithsonian Institution; mounted over two dozen one-man shows. Howard University, founded graphic arts department; art instructor, 1929-62, professor, 1962-68.
Awards: Florida State Fair, first prize for painting, second prize for woodworking, 1916; Harmon Foundation, gold medal, 1931; George E. Haynes prize for black-and-white work with a woodcut, 1933; George F. Muth engraving prize, Washington Water Color Club, 1958; first prize, Religious Art Exhibition, Smithsonian institution, 1958; Van Der Zee Award, Afro-American History and Cultural Museum, 1977; presidential citation for lifelong contribution to American art, 1980; “James L, Wells Day” declared, Washington DC, 1984; Living Legend Award, National Black Arts Festival, 1991.
art. The exhibition changed the way he thought about art and affected his style from that point on. Wells was also greatly influenced by artists whose work he encountered in the course of his studies at Columbia. He was particularly taken by the woodcuts of the German expressionists. The relationship between African sculpture and the abstract style of cubism was also of tremendous interest to him (the cubists had been greatly influenced by African folk art, particularly the flat planes and angles of ceremonial masks).
Wells had little difficulty finding work after graduating from Columbia. Using primarily block prints, he provided illustrations for a number of books, literary magazines, and other publications. The quality of Wells’s work brought him to the attention of J. B. Neumann, owner of the New Art Circle gallery. Neumann included some of Wells’s pieces in an exhibition of “International Modernists” in April of 1929. With recommendations from Neumann and George Laurence Nelson in hand, Wells pursued and landed a job teaching art at Washington, D. C.’s Howard University. James Herring, chairman of Howard’s art department had been duly impressed by Wells’s flurry of activity.
In Washington, Wells forged friendships with several eminent black scholars, including philosopher Alain Locke and historian Carter G. Woodson. These connections led to a great deal of book illustration work. Wells also continued his prolific painting, and he began receiving widespread attention for his works on canvas. In 1931 he received a gold medal for his painting Flight Into Egypt from the Harmon Foundation, an organization committed to honoring “distinguished achievements among Negroes.” Wells was honored again by the Harmon Foundation two years later, when he was awarded the George E. Haynes prize for best work in black and white with a woodcut. Like much of his work from that period, the piece for which he won, Escape of the Spies From Canaan, dramatized a biblical story, though the characters were depicted in modern attire.
Over the next couple of years, Wells formulated a decision that would affect the course of his career dramatically. Prior to 1933, Wells had devoted significant time to both painting and printmaking. As the Depression lingered on, however, the economic climate began to reshape the way Wells thought about art and its role in society. He eventually came around to the point of view that common people had become alienated from art because of its cost. He felt that this situation could be improved if more artists devoted their energies to reproducible, and therefore less expensive, forms such as lithographs, woodcuts, and etchings. From that point on, most of Wells’s output consisted of printmaking, and the content of his work focused on the history and experiences of African Americans and workers of all ethnic backgrounds.
1933 was also a significant year in Wells’s personal life. That year, he married Ophelia Davidson, a high school teacher and the daughter of prominent Washington lawyer Shelby Davidson. Ophelia’s brother was Eugene Davidson, president of the local chapter of the NAACP. As Wells became an integral part of the Davidson family, he became active in anti-segregation protests. Although he continued to produce highly acclaimed work through the rest of the 1930s and into the 1940s, Wells began to feel the need to expand his skills and explore new techniques. Toward that end, he took a leave of absence from Howard during 1947-48 to study at Stanley William Hayter’s Atelier 17 workshop in New York, concentrating on learning the fine points of engraving and intaglio printmaking.
Wells produced a large volume of art during the 1950s and 1960s, winning several awards along the way. He continued teaching at Howard as well. He also stepped up his work as an activist against segregation, a stance for which he and his family were frequently harassed. In 1957, for example, a cross was burned in front of the Wells home in retaliation for the artist’s outspoken position in favor of integrating the police department. Events such as this shaped Wells’s artwork of the period. His paintings and engravings from that time are full of religious imagery, and their bold expressionism reflects the fervor of his commitment to the civil rights movement.
The recognition Wells received for his art in this stage of his career included an honorable mention at the Corcoran Gallery of Art’s regional show in 1951 and the George F. Muth engraving prize of the Washington Water Color Club in 1958. In 1961 the Smithsonian Institution exhibited a one-man show of Wells’s work, and four years later, the Society of American Graphics in New York awarded him an honorable mention.
Wells retired from Howard University in 1968, but he did not slow his production as an artist. In 1969 he took a three-month trip to West Africa. Although he had been influenced by the region’s art for decades, Wells found new inspiration in his first encounter with the people and landscape of Ghana, Nigeria, and other countries. On his return to the United States, Wells began to work primarily in color linoleum cuts, though he did not completely forsake his other techniques, such a wood engraving. In 1973 Fisk University mounted a one-man exhibition dedicated to Wells, and a retrospective of his half-century of work was exhibited at Howard in 1977.
Wells continued to turn out prized linoleum cuts and other pieces well into his eighties. His subject matter did not mellow during the later stages of his career, however. He often addressed volatile themes such as violence, seduction, and greed, his finished works frequently appearing wild, more so than anything he had produced before. Advancing age brought with it new status and the ceremony that accompanies it. In 1980 Wells was honored by President Jimmy Carter for a lifetime of achievement. “James L. Wells Day” was declared by Mayor Marion Barry in Washington on February 15, 1984.
Further retrospectives and awards followed. The Washington Project for the Arts assembled a major show of Wells’s prints in 1986. This exhibition was moved to Harlem’s Studio Museum two years later. In 1990 the Harmon Foundation featured his work in a presentation called “Against the Odds.” The following year, the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta honored Wells with its Living Legend Award.
Wells died of heart failure at the age of 90 in 1993. Unlike many artists, his contribution to the world of art was not limited to what appeared on a handful of canvasses. His entire approach to art was revolutionary. Wells labored not only to present the African American experience in an interesting and provocative manner, but also to render it in forms that broadened its potential audience. He differed from many other artists, too, in that his battle against racial injustice and segregation took place in every arena, not just from the safe haven of the artist’s studio.
Bearden, Romare, A History of African-American Artists: From 1792 to the Present, Pantheon, 1993.
Lewis, Samella S., Art: African American, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978.
Powell, Richard J., James Lesesne Wells: Sixty Years in Art, Washington Project for the Arts, 1986.
Modern Maturity, June-July 1992, p. 50.
Washington Post, February 7, 1977, p. B2; January 23, 1994, p. C4.
—Robert R. Jacobson
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