On any list of great black artists of this century, James Lesesne Wells certainly deserves a prominent place.
Throughout a career that started in the arly 1920s in New York, where he was a student at Columbia University and a vigorous part of the Harlem Renaissance, the cultural milestone of the time, Wells has been a leading graphic artist. In his field he stands out not only as an innovator, notably in the medium of white-line wood engraving, but as a teacher who influenced scores of younger artists, such as well-known sculptor Elizabeth Catlett, during a 40-year career at Howard University.
Even today, at 76, as the trials of fitful health become daily nuisances, Wells continues to work.
In the basement of the rowhouse near Logan Circle that Wells has occupied since 1929, and in a carriage house at the rear, an atmosphere of jumbled productivity pervades the dampness. Upstairs he sits restless in the old-fashioned parlor near his early paintings and sculptures, discussing the life experiences - medieval history, the Bible, German Expressionism, Cubsim, African art and black culture, especially the writings of William E. B. DuBois and Carter G. Woodson - that have molded his personality and filtered onto his canvases.
Less weighty matters also arouse his curiosity, like the podium that has recently appeared in a neighbor's bay window. Peering out from his own stained-glass trimmed windows, Wells say, in a voice that's powerful despite the strain of a frozen larnyx, "Must be teachers. I've passed the time of day with these young people." Then he laughs simultaneoulsy speaking of the area's renovations and catching sight of the everpresent corner streetwalkers. "Oh, well, they do watch out for me," he says. "One calls me her godfather."
It's his abundant vigor, humor and resilience that younger artists and friends of Wells often describe. Where, the artists wonder, does he get his sense of survival and purpose in a competitive art world in which social conditions have never encouraged true success for the black artist.
"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. I could have achieved so much more, if I had had the entre. But blacks pushed me as far as they could," he says, a slight wistfulness slipping into his voice. "Maybe I went as far as I was supposed to go."
Over the years Wells has received Establishment recognition, starting with two awards from the Harmon Foundation in the early '30s and since the other honors from the Corcoran Gallery and the Smithsonian Institution.
His work, dominated by themes of religion, mythology, nature and street life from the boardwalk in Atlantic City to the bus stop in Ghana, has been exhibited at museums around the world, including the Corcoran, Brooklyn Museum, the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Smith-Mason Galley. It also is included in the permanent collections of the Phillips and Barnett-Aden Galleries. A retrospective of his paintings and prints is currently on view at Howard University's Gallery of Art.
Although religion has greatly influenced his work, Wells rejected a ministerial career as a freshman at Lincoln University and went on "to pursue something more mercenery." Born in Atlanta, Ga., in 1902, Wells is one of three children of a Baptist minister and schoolteacher. From the age of 10, when his father died, Wells helped support the family by doing odd jobs, and later, during his college days, by working as a busboy and waiter on the Hudson River Day Line cruise boats and the New York Central Railroad and by sorting mail at the Post Office.
While teaching, Wells did graphic illustrations for a number of periodicals, including a poetry journal of Marianne Moore and the history periodicals of the Assocciation for the Study of Afro-American Life and History. Earlier he had worked for The Survey, Dial, and Crisis and Opportunity. In the classroom, as he chewed an endless supply of spitballs, Wells encouraged a continuous expansion of skills.He says, "I just never stopped. I didn't have enough sense to stop."
Last week the worktable in his basement was covered with linoleum cuts, boldly colored with fluid figures, that had been inspired by a book of Senegalese stories, "Tales of Koumba."
"My belief is that art has a social message and should be expressive of the artist's reaction to society," says Wells, fingering the sheets of paper and discussing the results with his son Jim, a fee-lance photographer. "But first there's always the esthetic of joy and happiness for the perpetrator of the art. Me."