Picturing Jake Wells' dream

Friday, November 16, 2001

The late Jake Wells had a talent for teaching and for conveying the history and beauty of this region in paint. Wells' historical murals at Kent Library and on the building at 405 Broadway and his collection of watercolors titled "Missouri Mills" are only bigger and better known than the numerous Jake Wells paintings to be found in homes and offices across the region.

Forty-eight of those lesser-known and rarely seen paintings and drawings, many of which belong to his two children and friends, can now be seen in one place. Seventeen of the pieces belong to Dr. C. John Ritter, who was Wells' physician and good friend.

"In Memorium Exhibit -- Artist Jake K. Wells" at the Kelsen Gallery, 13. S. Spanish, through November is helping raise money for a project called the Wells Teaching Gallery. The gallery is planned as a space in the Southeast Missouri State University art building where student art can be displayed as professionally as at any other gallery.

"It was always a dream of Jake Wells' to have a teaching gallery right in the art department," says Dr. Edwin Smith, an art professor who was one of Wells' colleagues at Southeast.

Most university art departments have such a gallery, but Southeast's does not.

The Southeast Missouri State University Foundation is attempting to raise at least $25,000 for the project. A print of Wells' watercolor painting of the Old Appleton, Mo., mill is for sale at the Kelsen Gallery for $100, with the proceeds going to the teaching gallery.

With the art department moving to the Serena Building, the location of the teaching gallery is uncertain. Eventually, it would be located at the River Campus.

Longtime teacher

Wells taught in the Jackson schools before moving on to Southeast. He retired from the Southeast art department in 1980 and died in 1999 at age 81. He thought of himself as more of a teacher than painter.

Mild mannered and likable, Wells nevertheless demanded his students' unwavering attention. In class, he placed a mirror over his head so they could watch as he painted. He had a look, Smith said, that let you know he meant business. Many students and other art professors have claimed him as the most influential artist in their lives.

"He really liked students, he really liked people," his daughter Jeanie Wells-Troy said.

He was humble about his abilities with a brush.

"He didn't really consider himself a great artist. He thought great was exceptional," she says.

"You think of artists being highly interpretive. What he put out there was what he saw. He thought he was more of a technical artist."

But his paintings of Missouri mills and favorite fishing holes and landscapes gave Southeast Missourians a true sense of the place they inhabit.

"He didn't paint anything he didn't care about," Wells-Troy said. "When you looked, you were supposed to look with intent."

Potential donors to the Wells Teaching Gallery were invited to the opening reception for the exhibition last week at the Kelsen Gallery. "I never have seen people look so intently and discuss each piece," owner Mary Ann Kellerman said.

Wells gave many paintings to civic organizations and sent watercolor postcards for Christmas greetings.

Loving people

He is probably the most beloved artist who has ever worked in Southeast Missouri, a contention that makes Troy-Wells smile as modestly as her father would have.

"You have to love people for them to love you," she said.

Ever practical, Wells preferred watercolors to oil painting because oil required canvasses that were more difficult to take on the road and the paintings dried more slowly.

"He compared watercolor to a girl going to the sock hop," Wells-Troy said. "Oil was a grand dame going to the ball."

He was always drawing -- on Big Chief tablets at first. Sometimes he drew while watching TV. His daughter has sketches of Festus Hagen, a character on the Western series "Gunsmoke."

"He did think it was sad that people tried to paint who didn't know how to draw," she said.

Wells loved doing the historical research that often preceded painting. The huge Kent Library mural detailing the history of Southeast Missouri took him three years to complete.

Before beginning the painting, he made clay models of the figures. He also consulted with Missouri's most famous muralist: Thomas Hart Benton.

Wells was quite aware that Benton was the university's first choice to paint the mural. "Jake often made the remark that they got me because I worked for free," Wells-Troy said.

Wells' father-in-law was a millwright who built boats and lived on the Castor River near Zalma, Mo. Wells became fascinated with mills. He and history professor George Suggs collaborated on a book about those that remained in the state. "They were conscious of the fact that the mills were disappearing," Wells-Troy said. Five of the mills in their book are now gone.

A teaching gallery is the perfect memorial to her father, she says, "because it puts the focus on the students.

"That would be the way he would have thought it was supposed to be."


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