b. 1951, Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Wisconsin Connection:  resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
Em Bunnies Are Here Ida Dear , mixed media collage              (c) Della Wells
An Interview with Della Wells
by Mikeda Cannon

Can you give me your biography in four lines?   I am survivor. My goal is to strive to become free, because quite frankly a lot of people feel I shouldn’t be free. I did me.

When you say “I did me” what do you mean?  Well, I make up my own folktales in my work. The reason I do that is, number one, I grew up with two parents who were not ideal. My mother had schizophrenia. She went undiagnosed for fourteen years, and my father was just mad all the time… I like to make up my own realities. I find a lot of people make up their own realties. Look at George Bush and even people you know make up their own realities.  My parents did read to us. I like fairy tales, Aesop’s fables. I really like Rocky and Bullwinkle…I think people twist reality, so I like to twist reality.
In an interview with Sam Van Hallgren you said, “To be quite honest with you I kind of fell into this… I am a visual artist, also known as a self-taught folk artist.”  Which, if any, of these labels best defines your work? Why?   Della, my name.  The only reason I say that (give labels) is because in society you need to be in a category. You’re a category by race, age. I think it’s sad.  That’s the categories others have put on me.   Self-taught is best.  Though I feel like an outsider a lot…I think we should look at people for who they are, but that’s not reality.

What does it mean to be an artist? For me it’s to create. The other thing, too, is that people have misconceptions about being an artist. Like artists are fun and free and crazy. But I don’t think artists are any different than anyone else. We just have a specific skill we deal with. Take Tiger Woods for example, he has his own reality doesn’t he?

When and how did you begin to see yourself as an artist?  That’s a hard one. Do I see myself as an artist? I don’t know if I see myself as an artist. Maybe because I am always comparing myself to other people…I just look at it as something I do.

Since you don’t see yourself as an artist, how do you define yourself and what you do?   I see myself as a story teller. I like creating stories, and maybe I’m still finding my story. People are so many things. Maybe, I just don’t want to be defined as one thing.
You started creating art later in life; can you say something about that? I created before then (42) but I never took it seriously. I always had an interest but I thought artists don’t make money. I actually sold my first piece at 13.  I had a great art teacher, Mr. Katson. I didn’t know he was great at the time. It took me time to realize that he taught that beauty was everything. The other art teacher I had was Mr. Crawford and he basically left us alone to draw. Mostly he wanted to win prizes.  Throughout my life people were trying to get me to do art, but I didn’t have an interest. I didn’t have anything to say.

So when did you realize that you had something to say?
At the time I was going to MATC and I wanted to be a psychologist. My advisor who was also my history teacher told me to take some humanities.  I took an art history class…I thought people who took the class took it too seriously.  We had to do a paper on an artist. I wanted to do an African American artist from Milwaukee. I did it on Evelyn Terry. She used to be involved in the Gallery Towards the Black Aesthetics, in the early 70’s I used to hang out at there. She said I should be an artist. I said yeah right. I transferred to UWM (Milwaukee). I took an African religions class, then for some reason I had a spiritual connection.  Two artists had a show Evelyn Terry and Muneer Bahaudeen at Peltz Gallery.  Evelyn was exhibiting mono-prints of Haitian dolls…I was standing in the gallery and all of a sudden God told me to go make art. Evelyn had told me for two years after that, that I should do art. I was going to get my bachelors, then a PhD in psychology. I went to Evelyn, and I wanted to learn how to do a mono-print. First, she gave me a piece of paper and pastels, it turned out. Then I did another pastel that turned out, it actually looked like something. Then I did a mono-print.  She told me to do 50 pieces of work and she would get me a show.  I found it very therapeutic and worked very fast, but I got my first two shows on my own.
You got your first two shows on your own. What was that process like?  Well, I’m going to tell you. This is crazy. I was taking work to get it framed; I was matching the mats to the color of the images.  The framing place was at Grand Avenue Mall; the girl saw the work and said it was good. She told Café Melenge about my work and I had a show there. The second one was at UWM’s Women’s Center.  I think I knew the people, and they were showing artists, in the early 90’s.

How do you define the work that you do visually? In other words, what do you do? I do collages, and one of the reasons I do collages is because two of my favorite artists did collages. (Henri) Matisse and (Romare) Bearden. I like taking things such as found objects, magazines, papers whatever and give them new meaning and a new context. Because I think that’s what life is.  I also do pastels, I also draw. I also work on quilts. I have one I have been working on since 1996.  I would say my work is about myself and also about my mother; it’s about me striving to find a place to belong.
I grew up with a lot of books there were a lot of books in my house, science, math, etc.  The older kids (siblings) used to have ‘classes’.  Most of my brothers were really good at math and science.  We would go to museums and libraries.  My father did two years at Milwaukee School of Engineering, and also wanted to be a writer.  I knew my mother had done two years in college; she wanted to be a doctor. 
mixed media collage                                           (c) Della Wells
What is your message?
My message is to dream and do you. Don’t let others put you down, and listen to others. You realize we all have a story. Realize the world doesn’t revolve around just us. I think that’s a problem we have in America we think things revolve around us.

How is an idea born?
Sometimes it comes into my head, but a lot of time things happen in my life and I do work about people and situations. It’s funny because sometimes people don’t know it’s about them.

Many of your works have titles. Does the title usually come after the work is completed, or does the title inspire the work?
Sometimes it comes before. When I first started people asked me what things meant. I used to say I didn’t know. I just didn’t want to be bothered.  When I was at the David Barnett Gallery everything I gave was untitled.  My agent at the time, Paul Phelps, said it was hard to inventory. So, I started titling my work.

How do you evaluate whether an idea is good or not? 
I think you just do it. You play around with it. Believe it or not I may start on a piece and sometimes I won’t come back to it for two or three years.  I worked on this piece and it looked terrible to me, but I kept working and working on it, Sister Faithful, it’s a pastel. It’s about a woman who had her faith to help her get through this storm.
pen and ink on paper                                                                                           (c) Della Wells
Dare I Dream Because You Are There, (detail)  mixed media                                    (c) Della Wells
When do you get your best ideas?  When something happens to me or I get pissed off.  But I have ideas all the time, all the time in my head. I can go a long time and not work but I always have ideas. I think my next project will be about a three ring circus because I think life it like a three ring circus.

Do you upload your work to the web? If so, where can we see it?    Interesting enough, I don’t have a website. But I’m on other peoples websites. Peltz gallery has some of my stuff. Main Street Gallery in Clayton, Georgia, the Red Piano Too Art Gallery in St. Helena, South Carolina…You can Google me and see other things. I don’t have one but one day I’m going to get one.

What, if any, role does technology play in your creative process?  I do look at the internet. Actually I worked in computer operations for twenty years. In my process I like to look at how technology and pop culture effects who we are and shapes who we are. A lot of time I poke fun at it. Art history, feminist culture, African-American culture…

What websites do you visit?  The truth of the matter is I’m not really interested in websites. I think computers are brilliant but they’re making man stupid (laughs) lazy. We don’t even know how to write…technology to me has done a lot. We think we’re making food from scratch when it’s Stovetop stuffing.  I think if all the lights went out and we lost grocery stores we would be screwed.  That’s another reason I like going to my imaginary world. They don’t have to deal with all that crap.

What is art?  Art is many things.  I think we tend to think that it’s just paintings and sculptures but art is everything. Art is this floor, a stop light. Art is man’s desire to create. Art is also, to find you. I think art is very important. What people are going to learn about us is through our art. It’s not just what the art world dictates. Art is how we live our lives.

How should a work of art be evaluated?  (Laughs) You don’t want to get me started on this one!  I think number one we need to look at intent and context. Um…I think particularly here in America everything is about evaluating through western context.  Art does many things. A lot of critics knock Norman Rockwell, but he was a hired gun he was a commercial artist.  Even when you look at Michelangelo, he was a hired gun too; he was hired by the Pope.  Sometimes I think art critics and art historians write things that sound good and have nothing to do with an artist’s intent. I think the other thing too, is that we need to stop looking for deep dark meanings. Sometimes art exists, just because it exists.
So, if an artist is deceased and says little to nothing about intent how should we evaluate it?  To be quite honest with you, I think until the last hundred years or so we don’t know about artist intent and context. How do we know? I can give you a good example. Sometimes the artist is saying what the intent is and people want to categorize because they want it to be something.  I call it the Van Gogh syndrome.  Then again some artists know how to play the game and you wonder do they really believe what they say?

Is art necessary? Why or why not?  Yes, it’s necessary. I think, when you look at a child, one of the first things they do is grab a crayon or use creative play. We don’t like to believe it in this day and age but we do need art.  When you buy a new car if the artist didn’t package it a certain way, would you buy it? So we need it art.

Must an artist reinvent him/herself every day?  Why or why not?
Well, before I got into this art thing I was always reinventing myself. But for me art is about finding myself. In some cases I think it’s really sad what people find out about themselves sometimes it’s not for the better. But I think you should always be evolving.

Why do so many artists and creators have such volatile personalities?  I don’t’ believe that. Like I said, there are crazy people everywhere, look at Sarah Palin. I think that’s the Van Gogh syndrome.  Ten years ago I was in a short relationship with a guy and I’d come home and have 20-30 messages from him. I didn’t want the drama. He was crazy. I think you find artists who are sane and insane, but that’s life. Also, I think sometimes artists are said to be crazy so they (a gallery or agent) can use the artist or justify doing wrong things to an artist.

mixed media collage on wood panel  (above and below images)       (c)  Della Wells
Which artists do you admire and how do they influence your work?
Well, I like a lot of people, okay. I like (Romare) Bearden (Henri) Mastisse, (Vincent) Van Gogh Faith Ringgold, Sonji Hunt…I like a lot of people, there’s a whole host of people. I like different things. I like this artist Michael Banks, out of Alabama. I always find it interesting the different ways artists create. I think art is like meeting a man, some interest you and some don’t but liking one and not the other one doesn’t make one invalid.

Does it pain you to let go of a piece you have sold? Why or why not?
You know somebody asked me that this week. No it doesn’t. One part of me understands it is part of the business. Also, once I’m done creating it, I don’t have an attachment to it. I have no problem letting stuff go.

Is a work of art purchased, or is it better said that it is the artist who is bought?  Hmm…It depends. I think some artists are bought and some are not. And I think for some artists who move in the upper parts of the art world it might happen that you sell your soul. I don’t’ want to sell my soul. Some people look at the artist as a commodity, which is sad.
In art, there is no guide.  How do you know what the next step is?  I don’t (laughs). I don’t know. I may decide to do something totally different (than what I was doing) the creative process leads you where it leads you.  But if you start selling work people know you for a certain type of work and people expect it, it’s sad but it is a reality. I like Picasso because he did so many styles.   People ask me why I do so many styles, and I say if Picasso did it, why can’t I?

How do you feel about the fact that most pieces exhibited in contemporary art museums are often by artists already deceased?  One artists told me once, they like you poor stupid and dead. That way they can manipulate your image. However, I think to be totally fair there are some museums and art centers dedicated to showing living artists. Two that come to mind are the Kohler in Sheboygan, and the Museum of Wisconsin Art, even the Milwaukee Art Museum.  But when you talk about the Milwaukee Art Museum you’re talking about artists of a certain stature. I think the Kohler looks at what is out there.
What role does/ have art dealers, gallery owners, and the like played in your career?  Actually a lot, for example some galleries have gotten my prices up. Some galleries show you to different audiences.   Even collectors are important and play a role.  It may determine how much money you get, but then it may not!

What do you feel is the best role for art criticism or the art critic to play? Do you think the art critic is more harmful or helpful?   Number one I think the age of the art critic making an artist’s career is gone. I think the internet plays a part (in that).  I think the art critic should know what they’re looking at, don’t make crazy comparisons. I once told a critic she didn’t know what she was talking about, George McCormick was compared to Betye Saar and his work wasn’t like hers at all.  Here in Milwaukee (often people) don’t know what they’re talking about and they don’t understand it.

Do you collect any art work? Who?  Yes I do.  I have Annie Gerich, Michael Banks, I have a small Sheron Kerry-Harlan, Jimmy Lee Sudduth…I have a bunch of people, George McCormick, bunch of people.

Do you collect any other items? Yeah, teapots, dolls, suitcases. I like a bunch of stuff. Lamps, I have a lamp fetish. A bunch of things.

Okay I have to ask, why suitcases?   They have to be old suitcases, like suitcases from the 40’s, 50’s 60’s, they give me a sense of history. I think they’re more interesting than the suitcases now. I like old things. I collect old dresses too.

What advice would you give artists just beginning?  First of all know who you are. Know who you are in your work. Don’t get caught up in what I call foolish art speak.  Find someone who’s successful who’s doing what you’re doing.  Learn the business of art, and understand when you’re being used. CHOOSE how you’re being used.
You founded the artist advocacy group ABEA (African Americans Artist Beginning to Educate Americans about African-American Art). What was your motivation for founding ABEA?
I can’t remember the exact date (I founded ABEA).  Actually (I started ABEA for) several reasons. Reason one, here in Milwaukee I heard a lot of African-American artists complain about how they were treated. There were no African-American galleries.  Number two, people don’t really know the types of work African-American’s do.  The other reason is that I felt that African-American artists here in Wisconsin are underappreciated.  Another reason (is) I was doing a show Kentuk Festival of the Arts; it’s one of the top art shows for outsiders.  The first year I did it the late Jimmy Lee Sudduth’s booth was right next to me, and he was sold out by 10 o’clock (in the morning).  I realized we need to cherish what we create.  I also realized that here (Milwaukee), most of my clientele is white.  To me we are losing history and we shouldn’t be losing the history.  We don’t understand what the African-American artists do here (Milwaukee).  That’s where education comes in.  We talk about issues that are important to the African-American community and artists.  Some of the things that happen here, the art community couldn’t get away with in Chicago, Detroit, Atlanta (and) New York. An example (is) this one artist and curator here (Milwaukee) who I’m not going to name, went around bragging that he stopped the funding of murals (in Milwaukee) because inner-city people don’t need art they need food stamps. (I also found) some people, here in Milwaukee, expect African-American artists to do things for free!  People want to talk about diversity and coming to the table but for some of us the table isn’t offering anything.  There are people trying to change thing, but these are real issues and people would be surprised.

What was that process like to getting ABEA established?
It’s hard; you have to get people together.  One reason is that a lot of the artists we work with are working artists.  And I tell them they need to put that (creating art) first and ABEA second. And sometimes people don’t appreciate it (art, artists, and artist advocacy) because you’re from here.  I don’t think it’s a race thing it’s just sometime local becomes a dirty word.
You exhibited a collections titled “Don’t Tell me I Can’t Fly: Folktales by Della Wells” in 2006 at The Charles Allis Art Museum in Milwaukee. Can you say more about your folktales? What is your process for creating words based narrative and how do the corresponding images come about?
I look at myself a being a storyteller.  And (all) people tell stories.  For example I look at my mother, she had an unhappy life.  Her mother died and her father went and started another family.  I always think about her schizophrenia, I think about what kind of realities we create.  That show (Don’t Tell me I can’t Fly) and a UWM (Milwaukee) professor got First Stage Children’s Theater to create a play about my life. I’m excited because it was selected to be work-shopped at the Kennedy Center next year, and a lot of the character’s are based on people I know. 

I did one piece in 2008 inspired by the presidential election; This is the Year of Our Song. And um, I thought number one Barack ran, Hilary ran, we had the oldest presidential candidate ever running…I was inspired because the election struck me as us being at a crossroads. I don’t think you would have seen that before, an African-American candidate, a woman, the oldest person ever to run. It says to me maybe society will change, but then maybe not.
How do you go about self-promotion? What advice can you give?
Network! Network! Network!  Start going to art shows, travel. When I read art journals I read the ads, go to events, network. And get to know who makes the decisions, (get to know) who’s important.  If someone isn’t helping your career, move on. When you go look at a gallery, find out about that gallery.  Never pay to have your work hung in a gallery.
How do you self-document?   I’m really lousy at it. There are some artists who are good at it. Mutope J Johnson is good at it.  The reason probably, why I don’t do it is probably my own insecurity.  Probably there was a period in the 90’s when Paul Phelps documented my work.

You have curated several shows. Can you say a bit about the experience of curating?  What is your goal when you curate?   I love curating because I actually love the art. My goal in curating is to tell a story and to showcase artists who people may not know and some they might know. I want people to experience different levels of art.  A lot of people have misconceptions about folk art or outsider art.  I think we think of someone being an outsider artist and romanticized it.  There are all different kinds of people creating art.  I think it’s foolish to expect today’s outsider artists to not be influenced by technology and pop culture. 

Any advice on curating in general?  Look at work, and understand the context and intent. Also decide what your goal is, what are you trying to let the viewer know.

Thank you. Is there anything else you might like to say?  Learn about the art, learn how to appreciate it. And for the artists out there, do you!

                                                                                       interview from December 4, 2009
mixed media pen and ink drawings on paper (above and below)  (c) Della Wells
Della Wells is a Milwaukee native who has described herself categorically as a self-taught folk artist, but admits that that these labels do not suit her properly.  Rather it is her name that best describes her.  She has always been an artist and sold her first work at the age of thirteen, but didn’t start working in earnest until age forty-two. “Throughout my life people were trying to get me to do art,” she says, “but I didn’t have an interest. I didn’t have anything to say.” Della’s work is about storytelling she states, “I make up my own folktales in my work… I like to make up my own realities. I find a lot of people make up their own realties.” It took some effort on the part of a college advisor and friends for Della to begin seeing herself as an artist; she had ambitions toward a PH.D in psychology. Now, Della’s work ranges from collage and pastels to quilting and she has shown all over the United States and abroad. Her creative process stems primarily from her personal experiences, embellished through the art of storytelling into a visual work, “I see myself as a storyteller,” she explains, “…and maybe I’m still finding my story.”  Her images reflect her own experiences and occasionally the interpretation of other people’s experiences, her work is about life and therefore living.  “Art is many things,” says Della, “I think we tend to think that it’s just paintings and sculptures but art is everything. Art is this floor... Art is man’s desire to create. Art is also, to find you… Art is how we live our lives.”
Della Wells  (photo by Sonji Hunt)