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James Lesesne Wells was born on the campus of an historically black university, the Gammon Theological Seminary in Atlanta, where his father was pursuing a doctorate in divinity; he then spent most of his youth in Palatka, Florida. Following his father’s premature death, James received a scholarship to attend the Florida Normal and Industrial School in nearby Jacksonville for his secondary education. It was there that he discovered his artistic talent, which was recognized with several awards for drawing at the 1915 Florida State Fair. Art instruction would be an important aspect of Wells’s life, as evidenced by his thirty-nine-year tenure at Howard University in Washington, DC. The impressive roster of Howard students Wells influenced includes Elizabeth Catlett, David Driskell, Delilah Pierce, and Mildred Thompson.

Following his high school graduation, Wells moved to New York to live with extended family in Harlem while he worked to finance his further education. After spending a year at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania, he moved back to New York and continued his studies at the both the National Academy of Design and the Teachers College at Columbia University, where he majored in art education and graduated in 1925. Courses at Columbia introduced Wells to the work of German Renaissance printmaker Albrecht Dürer, as well as more modern artists of the German printmaking tradition. His exposure to these artists influenced his belief that printmaking should be viewed as a major art form, one to be taken as seriously as the so-called “high” arts of painting and sculpture.

Although Wells exhibited—and won acclaim for—his paintings, printmaking became his passion and primary focus in the 1930s. In those years, he worked for various workshops and government-funded programs in Harlem, including the Harlem Art Workshop, an important education and exhibition space for African American artists directed by sculptor Augusta Savage. Wells also led an after-school arts program in the basement of the 135th Street branch of the public library in Harlem, where he supervised Palmer Hayden and Charles Alston, both of whom taught at the program.

Wells believed in the potential of printmaking as the most accessible medium to communicate to the masses, and specifically to African American audiences who, he thought, could more easily afford prints. He said, “Becoming aware of the social and economic conditions of the time and the awakening of the 'New Negro,' I felt that the graphic arts would lend itself readily to the projection of ideas about these issues.” After graduating from Columbia, Wells worked as an illustrator, and his work of this period reflects his deep commitment to concerns that many other Harlem Renaissance artists, writers, and philosophers were also addressing. Often rooted in religious themes, his prints regularly accompanied articles by black authors that focused on African American history and social issues, as well as contemporary African American literature. These illustrations, much like Star Gazing, are representative of Wells’s unique style, which combined his interests in both European modernism and African sculpture.

James Wells won the 1930 William E. Harmon Award for Distinguished Achievement Among Negroes for fine arts, the final year of that particular Harmon initiative. The next year, six of his works were included in the annual juried exhibition. Wells was also invited to participate in the groundbreaking exhibition Contemporary Negro Art. Held at the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1939, it was one of the first major presentations in the United States devoted exclusively to living African American artists.

Wells spent a sabbatical year (1947–1948) in Paris where he worked with the British painter and printmaker Stanley Hayter at Atelier 17, a collaborative, experimental studio frequented by some of the best-known modernist artists of the day, including Jackson Pollock, Alexander Calder, and Mark Rothko. At Atelier 17, Hayter encouraged his contemporaries to explore new printmaking techniques. The innovative spirit of the studio certainly appealed to Wells, who had long championed printmaking as a premier art form.

Wells retired from teaching in 1968, but continued to work as a painter and printmaker, focusing more on color linoleum prints and silkscreens in his later years. He also continued to receive high honors in the later years of his career; he was the focus of a one-man show hosted by Fisk University in Nashville in 1972 and in 1980, President Jimmy Carter awarded Wells a presidential citation for lifelong contributions to American art. Today, Wells’s work can be found in many prestigious art collections, including the Smithsonian American Art Museum, the Phillips Collection, the Library of Congress, and the Hampton University Museum in Virginia.