Creating Art to Talk about the Tough Issues
Special to the Ames Tribune
Written by Tiffany Westrom
October 20, 2013
Unexpected billowing swipes of paint characterize canvases that depict the dark scenes of slave labor.“The children in the pictures caught my attention first and foremost,” said Jill Wells, a Des Moines artist. “One of the pictures used to make me cry, the shadow of the darkened eyes was just extremely compelling.”Wells created “The Cotton Memoirs,” an exhibit that is on display through December in the Multicultural Center of the Iowa State University Memorial Union.The pieces, which range from large painted canvas to small pencil drawings, contain replicas of old black and white photographs that have been illuminated by color and Well’s signature “trump card,” which, for this series, is that the children in the images were altered from their state in the original picture.Now, instead of wearing traditional farm clothes, the children wear special garb. One is depicted in a graduation gown, another a judicial robe and another a baptismal gown — all for the purpose of giving the audience more clues so that they might do their own research just as Wells has during the last decade.“I stressed the palette,” she said. “They were black and white originally, but color provides a soothing luxury for a situation that was extremely difficult.”Wells grew up in Iowa and was aware of the lack of diversity in her community.When she began attending Drake University, it became clear that one day each year during black history month was not nearly enough to understand her history. “The Cotton Memoirs” began as her thesis in 2003 and continued on for years as she added to the collection. For her, these pieces became a way to talk about tough things and to start the conversations that people are afraid to have.“I really gravitate towards situations that deal with struggle,” Wells said. “I can work through what I’m going through, and I can help someone else work through things as well. It lets you have the conversation you were never able to have or didn’t feel comfortable having.”In addition to “The Cotton Memoirs,” Wells does work with Amanda the Panda, a Des Moines-based nonprofit that helps families grieve the loss of loved ones. She has also done murals at Creative Visions, the Blank Park Zoo and the Lutheran Hospital in the Behavioral Health and Sciences wing, where children have been through some severe situations.Wells continues to use art to proclaim a humbling past and real pain paired with enduring hope.
Jill Wells: The Cotton Memoirs
When: Through December
Where: Multicultural Center, ISU Memorial Union
Reception for The Cotton Memoirs
When:7 to 9 p.m. Friday, Nov. 15
Where: Multicultural Center, ISU Memorial Union
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Grief Center Teams Up with Local Artists for Art Therapy
Posted July 18, 2013 in Web Exclusives
WEST DES MOINES, Iowa
Amanda the Panda Grief Center teamed up with two local artists to promote art therapy. Bill Butler, artist and graphic designer at Thomas Lift, LLC, was involved in the Bill Butler Live Art Experience on June 1, 2013. This event enabled grieving children, teens and adults to participate while also observing the painting, titled “Transforming Darkness into Light,” being created. Jill Wells, mural artist for JJWells Art, is currently crafting an interactive mural at the grief center. The mural, titled “From Loss to Life,” features magnetic paint which will allow program participants to include themselves in the art work.
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ARTIST SHARES BLACK HISTORY ART INSIGHT
The Bulletin is published by the DMACC Marketing and Public Relations Office.
February 16, 2010
Des Moines artist Jill Wells explains elements of an art mural she created during a presentation to students and faculty members at the DMACC West Campus as part of Black History Month events. Wells (left) talks with DMACC History Professor Chuck Lauritsen following the West Campus presentation. Wells uses Civil War-period photographs of African-Americans as themes in her own artwork. Wells has created murals in Central Iowa at the Creative Visions Center, the Blank Park Zoo, the Windsor Heights YMCA, Iowa Lutheran Hospital and the Des Moines Art Center. Wells has also spoken at the DMACC Ankeny and Boone Campuses. She has presentations also scheduled for the following DMACC campuses:
Newton Campus, Feb. 16, at 11:15 a.m., Auditorium Carroll Campus, Feb. 18, at 12:50 p.m., Room 148 Urban Campus, Feb. 23, at 11:15 a.m., Bldg. 1 Room 124–126
Surviving Arts in Iowa
Written by Allison Quick / Drake University
Monday, 08 June 2009 12:30
Iowa art organizations are staying stable, despite funding concernsWhen you walk into the child and adolescent behavioral health unit at Iowa Lutheran Hospital the first thing you see is brightly colored beach scenes and palm trees welcoming you into the lobby. This first impression is far from the one you would’ve gotten one year ago – blank gray walls of a hospital unit full of young victims of physical and emotional abuse.The total length of the mural was 700 feet down the hallways and inside the door. It was painted by Iowa artist Jill Wells, who has worked seven years in private and public art in Iowa and New Orleans. The goal of the nine-month project was to provide a comforting, healing environment for the patients of the hospital wing.“It was a humbling experience to finally see the mural complete in the hallways,” Wells said. “I was able to meet some of the families who told me that their children had mentioned it to them, and that they’d seen a difference. It became a much more relatable environment that the kids could recognize and help them to relax at times.”The growing concern of joblessnessWells was able to influence Lutheran’s hospital wing patients and staff by her mural, something she believes in strongly to be the healing quality of artwork. The Des Moines community boasts a large spectrum of art organizations that act on the similar goal as Wells—to impact the community.But just as we have been worrying on an individual basis, thoughts of joblessness running through millions of people’s minds during the current state of our economy. Artists, museums, art centers and non-profit organizations all make up a part of this group, and unfortunately, they are some of the first to be on the chopping block when it comes to funding.“Well, we’re all scared,” Rod McCullough, manager of the Des Moines Playhouse, says. “We don’t know what’s going to happen. The concern that we all have individually is the same concern we’re having as organizations.”Iowa sits number 43 on the ranking of per state capita for arts funding. This means 42 cents per person, compared to the national average of $1.01. Surrounding states have well above the national average—with Missouri ranked 9th with $1.86 and Minnesota at number seven with $1.97, according to Americans for the Arts.
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Forever Changed: A Mother Moves On
Written by Cara Hall
December 23, 2008
Jill Wells calls the first stage of painting a mural the ugly stage. After the outline has been transferred to the wall, she starts filling in the background. At that point it's just a series of blobs and blotches that perplex anyone who walks by. "The challenge is seeing something right at the beginning," she says. "Then it comes full circle."Wells, 28, knows how difficult it is to see a bright future when your present looks bleak. On April 15, 2004, she faced every mother's worst nightmare - imagining a future without her son. William, her perfectly healthy baby, died of SIDS when he was just three months old.Through those dark days, Wells drew on the strength of her family, her deep faith and the healing power of her artwork to begin the process - one she says will never truly end - of moving on with her life.*****Wells was working at a hotel the day a police officer called and told her there had been an accident and to rush to the hospital. He didn't say what happened. Was there a fire at the babysitter's home? Did William get burned?"I remember the entire thing," she says. "I could paint pictures of it all day."Seeing William's lifeless body reminded her of the day eight years earlier when a blood vessel burst in her then 18-year-old brother's brain, and he slipped into a coma where he stayed for 10 months. "It was a surreal experience, seeing him in the ER and then seeing my son," she says.But in this case doctors could find no reason that William stopped breathing. He simply went to sleep and never woke up. After performing an autopsy, doctors gave Wells the official diagnosis of SIDS, or sudden infant death syndrome. It was a heartbreaking punch in the gut for Wells. "It's extremely vague and frustrating," she says. "The answers all make you wonder if it was something you could have prevented. When you're a first-time mom you don't know. It's terrible when someone dies to not have an answer as to why."*****After William died, Wells took a break from her painting classes at Drake University. "I had to have an adult conversation with myself about it," she says. "I said 'Jill, this is reality. It's very much real, so deal with it. Crying about it is not going to make him come back. You've got to find a way to help him live on in a positive light.'"She began work on a painting that now hangs in her bedroom, facing her bed. At the bottom of the four-foot-tall painting, a mother grieves for her baby. On top an angel, bathed in light, scoops up the child. She says the painting remains her favorite work, one she will never sell. While the image would move anyone who sees it, she is the only one who can truly understand its meaning.After finishing her degree at Drake, Wells took on several large-scale mural commissions, including a massive beach scene she spent nine months painting, pro bono, for the Adolescent Behavioral Health Wing at Lutheran Hospital. She dedicated the mural, which is meant to brighten the days of children in the wing who have been through serious psychological trauma, to William. Donations from the hospital also helped her purchase a headstone for him.Wells also painted murals at Blank Park Zoo and the Walnut Creek YMCA. She says she loves the scale of a mural, the way it envelopes you and comes into your space. The time spent painting, rather than simply working to pay the bills, has helped her, too. "Art is very therapeutic for me," she says. "I think about art less and life more. It's almost like you fall asleep. You get so internalized while you're painting."*****To meet Jill Wells today, four years after her son's death, 12 years after her brother, LeeCole, woke from his coma blind and having lost his ability to do almost anything, you find a woman with a bright smile who carries on with a deep inner strength. "She exudes such a sense of peace, you would never know the turmoil of what she's been dealt in life," says Joleen Fulcher, who got to know Wells when she painted a mural in Fulcher's house.When Wells talks about what she's been through, she remembers her mother's words: Everyone has their own cross to bear. "Everyone has a traumatic situation, something they thought was so hard they couldn't get through it," she says. "I couldn't imagine what it would be like if everything had been champagne and strawberries."Wells has also turned to spirituality to deal with some of her unanswered questions. "God, he's my rock, my savior. He protects me," she says. "He puts those people in my life for a reason. Life is hard for everyone, and death is a part of life."Wells admits, though, that she is not the person she once was. Now going through a divorce, her focus has changed from the idyllic family life she says many women seek to her dreams of getting a masters degree in art and becoming a full-time artist/teacher. She doesn't plan to have any more children. She doesn't want to put herself in a position to experience the kind of pain that only a mother who has lost her child can understand.Her art has changed, too. In college, she painted a series of sprawling narratives of African American history, each figure painted in crisp detail. Lately her paintings are much simpler.In her south-side apartment, she pulls out a few small canvases, a series she has been working on. In the middle of each one is a heart, with swishes of pink, purple or blue paint fading into the background. "When something like that happens, that big, you do try to find a way to simplify your life," she says. "I could do 50, 60, 70 of these. I have that much emotion, so why not?"Some clients have been put off by her aesthetic switch, but others appreciate it. "She's not afraid to try new things," says Angela Williams, owner of the Great Frame Up, where Wells has shown her work. "I think she's going to go far."******Wells says she treats people differently now. "I have an openness to what people go through," she says. Where she might have jumped to argue before, she stops herself. It's not worth it.There are, undoubtedly, tough days, though. A co-worker had a child the same week William was born. When she sees him now, she can't help but think of her own boy. But she keeps her struggles to herself. Wells lays a canvas on the floor of her apartment, puts on her headphones and gets lost in her work."If nothing else, art provides an outlet for her," says Maura Lyons, one of the art professors Wells worked with at Drake. "She wants it to communicate."Next year Wells will begin work on a narrative mural about African American history at Creative Visions, a nonprofit agency that helps at-risk youth find jobs and the site of her very first large-scale mural commission. The site has a special meaning for her, as she learned during her first project there that it had once been a pool hall, the one where her father was shot and killed in 1982.Another loss. Another struggle. Jill Wells has every reason to fall into despair. But she won't. That's not who she is. That's not what William would want."He's a huge inspirational drive for me," she says. "With everything I do, I think, would he be proud?"
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