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James L. Wells
*James Lesesne Wells was born on this date in 1902. He was a Black educator, artist, and photographer.
From Atlanta, Georgia, his father was a Baptist minister and his mother a teacher. At an early age, he moved to Florida with his family. His first experience as an artist was through his mother, who encouraged him to help with art instruction in her kindergarten classes. At thirteen, he won first prize in painting and second prize in woodworking at the Florida State Fair. Wells studied at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania before transferring to Columbia University in New York, where he majored in art.
His exposure to an exhibition of African sculpture at the Brooklyn Museum of Art inspired him. He was also greatly influenced by the woodcuts of Albrecht Durer and the German Expressionists: Ernst Kirchner, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Otto Muller, and Emile Nolde. Unlike most of his contemporaries, he saw prints as a major art form. After graduation, Wells created block prints to illustrate articles and publications such as Willis Richardson’s Plays and Pageants of Negro Life.
In April 1929, his work was included in an exhibition of "International Modernists" at the New Art Circle Gallery. Later that year, he was invited to join the faculty at Howard University as a crafts teacher. He taught clay modeling, ceramics, sculpture, metal, and block printing. After two years, he convinced the school that he and linoleum cutting belonged in the College of Fine Arts. Wells was an innovator in the field of printmaking. After World War II, he spent a sabbatical year working in Stanley Hayter’s Atelier 17. During the 1950s and 1960s, he taught and won many art awards. As an activist, Wells joined his brother-in-law, Eugene Davidson, president of the local NAACP chapter, in protesting segregation in lunch counters, stores, and the nearly all-white police department and, as a result, was often harassed.
This persecution probably accounted for some of the religious themes in his work. Wells retired from Howard University in 1968, painting and making prints into his eighties. Color linoleum prints became his specialty. In 1986, the Washington Project for the Arts assembled a major exhibition of his work, and in 1973, Fisk University mounted another one-man show. His work Flight Into Egypt was exhibited in 1990 in Harmon’s "Against the Odds" exhibition and still looked as modern as it had when it was created.
James Lesesne Wells was a leading graphic artist and art teacher whose work reflected the vitality of the Harlem Renaissance. Wells died on January 20, 1993, at the age of ninety.
The African American Desk Reference
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture
Copyright 1999 The Stonesong Press Inc. and
The New York Public Library, John Wiley & Sons, Inc. Pub.