As the curatorial team turns towards identifying collections for the upcoming 12 Years that Changed Washington exhibition, we’ve been looking more closely at the art and artists held by the ACM to show how changes in art and culture coincided with radical social change in DC. Looking beyond formal visual arts, we are also looking for the many posters, prints and informal art that blossomed during this time–and in so doing stumbled upon one of the masters in our collection, James Wells.
James Wells was born in Georgia in 1902 and found renown in New York in the 1920s. In 1929 he accepted a position teaching Arts and Crafts at Howard University. Influenced by seminal 1923 exhibition Primitive Negro Art, Chiefly from the Belgian Congo at the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences (now the Brooklyn Museum), Wells blended a distinctly African aesthetic with modernist forms that would go on to define the art of the Harlem Renaissance.
Wells remained at Howard until 1968 and continued printmaking in Washington DC until his death in 1993. Wells was noted for his civil rights activism and educational outreach and mentored countless artists as they trained at Howard during his tenure. Many of the leading African American artists (and museum directors!) of the 20th century found themselves under Wells’ tutelage at one time or another. Even after his retirement, he continued for more than two decades to guide young artists and contribute to print and poster making in the District of Columbia.
The two prints of Wells’ in the Anacostia Community Museum Collection are among his earlier works, created on or around 1929. Acquired by the museum in 1985 for its exhibition, The Renaissance: Black Arts of the 20s, these two prints demonstrate the early promise and vision of one of 20th century America’s finest printmakers.