James Lesesne Wells (1902-1993) was an African-American printmaker focused on experimenting with the formal qualities of his art, pushing his pupils and peers to do the same. Wells had a passion for education. Born to a Baptist minister and primary school teacher, Wells began his teaching career with art instruction for his mother’s young students. 1 At Columbia University, Wells studied under Millard Meiss and Arthur Wesley Dow. He recounts how these two men broadened his understanding and appreciation of both Western and Eastern art history. 2
By 1929, Wells himself was a professor at Howard University in Washington D.C. 3 Simultaneously, Wells helped to found the Harlem Arts Workshop, which offered free art lessons to underprivileged children in Harlem. These students included Jacob Lawrence, Palmer Hayden, Aaron Douglas, Robert Blackburn, Romare Bearden, and Charles Alston, some of whom exhibited alongside Wells in the 1939 BMA exhibition “Contemporary Negro Art.” 4 Wells sacrificed his own work for the education of his students. Some of his rare prints are so elusive because the original lithograph stone no longer exists. The stones were reused by Wells in the classroom before he had even finished printing a full series. 5 Wells retired from teaching in 1968, though his friends expressed that he was always “a teacher at heart.” 6
Wells thought of himself as a student as well. While he is commonly credited as an Expressionist, Wells studied African, Japanese, and Western traditions, exposing himself to more and more art as his years advanced.7 Wells is known for depictions of the black working class as well as traditional scenes from Western mythology and the Bible. 8 However, Wells found narrative to be less important than exploration of form. 9 He was more interested in pushing the qualities of line, color, and composition. Although his narratives fall greatly in line with Western tradition, the formal qualities of his art were in constant flux. Early prints by Wells show the exaggerated forms of the Expressionists. These prints also suggest the abstraction and flattening of African and Japanese prints, of which Wells and other Expressionists were also in dialogue with. Wells not only experimented with abstraction but practiced representation as well, traveling to the countryside to make still lifes and landscapes. 10 After retirement, Wells expanded on his use of color, drawing greater influence from the culture and textile patterns he saw while visiting Western Africa. 11 Just as he pushed his students to experiment, Wells himself never settled into a stylistic comfort zone. He looked across the globe and throughout history to expand his knowledge of art and his own artistic style.
Friend and print collector Jacob Kainen speculated how Wells’ life may have been different if he had not given up his artistic practice in New York to become a teacher at Howard. 12 While Wells may have gained greater prestige as an Expressionist in the art world, it seems rather unlikely that this is the life Wells desired. By friends’ accounts as well as his own, Wells’ primary passion was for teaching. This is not to say, however, that Wells had minimal impact on African-American art culture and history. In fact, it only disseminated his influence further. For an exhibition of the Harlem Arts Workshop’s student work, critic Aron Bement noted that “the influence of the instructor is evident in all the [students’] drawings.” 13 Within his lifespan, Wells taught thousands of students, aiding them in their creative discoveries, and shaping them as the next generation of black artists. Prominent black creators in a variety of disciplines can credit Wells as a mentor and influence. While James Lesesne Wells’ name may not shine as brightly in textbooks and galleries, his presence is felt in the works of those all around him. Wells’ legacy stands in his passion for art education and experimentation.
1 Author unkown. “James Lesesne Wells, Artist and Teacher.” James Lesesne Wells, Artist and Teacher. African American Registry, http://www.aaregistry.org/historic_events/view/james-lesesne-wells-artist-and-teacher.
2 Archives of American Art. Interview with James Lesesne Wells. 1989.
3 Powell and Reynolds. Sixty Years in Art. Page 13.
4 Audrey Peterson. “Harlem’s Youngest Artists.” American Legacy, Volume 12, Issue 4, 2007. Page 55.
5 Ruth Fine. “Collector Juliette Bethea: In Conversation at The National Gallery of Art.” International Review of African American Art, Volume 22, Issue 4, 2009, Page 23.
6 Ruth Fine. “Collector Juliette Bethea: In Conversation at The National Gallery of Art.” International Review of African American Art, Volume 22, Issue 4, 2009, Page 22.
7 Archives of American Art. Interview with James Lesesne Wells. 1989.
8 Curtia James. “Review of Exhibitions: Atlanta—James Lesesne Wells at Hammonds House: an Illustrated Quarterly Magazine.” Art in America, Volume 78, Issue 12, 1990. Page 177.
9 Archives of American Art. Interview with James Lesesne Wells. 1989.
10 Archives of American Art. Interview with James Lesesne Wells. 1989.
11 “James Lesesne Wells, artist and teacher.” African American Registry.
12 Powell and Reynolds. Sixty Years in Art. Page 3.
13 Audrey Peterson. “Harlem’s Youngest Artists.” American Legacy, Volume 12, Issue 4, 2007. Page 55.