People to Watch | Jill Wells, a 'caring and focused' artist, adds color to Des Moines with murals, mentorship

People to Watch | Jill Wells, a 'caring and focused' artist, adds color to Des Moines with murals, mentorship Isaac Hamlet, Des Moines Register | 12/22/2022

Jill Wells' first public work of art was created in the place where her father died.

In her Des Moines TEDx Talk earlier this year, Wells recounted creating her first piece of public art when she was 19. The mural "Running Out of Time" — which depicts Martin Luther King Jr., Marcus Garvey, Malcolm X and Frederick Douglass — graces a wall at Creative Visions in Des Moines. The nonprofit, at 13th Street and Forest Avenue, works to break the cycle of poverty.

It wasn't until after the mural was completed that Wells' mother, who had declined to view the mural until it was finished, told Wells it was in that very building that her father had been killed.

It had happened when her father was 22, when the Creative Visions building was a pool hall. He was shot when Wells was 2, during an argument that broke out, taking a bullet likely not meant for him.

On Jan. 15, 2023, Wells hopes to uncover more about her father while also creating a piece of art designed to speak to a community of the 6 million souls involved in the Great Migration and their descendants. With "Black Thread" at the Dubuque Museum of Art, Wells will illustrate the legacy of those millions, her father's and her own place therein.

The Great Migration is the period from roughly 1915 to 1970 when Black Americans relocated from the rural South to northern communities.

"I will actually be working with a genealogist from Des Moines," Wells said. "She's going to research my family history and join into this discussion about that wider social impact of these genealogies and surrounding locations from the South to the North."

For bringing light and power to Des Moines through deeply researched art, Wells is one of the Des Moines Register's 2023 People to Watch.

'There was no talk about the beauty of Blackness'

Wells knows what it's like to walk through a city without seeing faces like her own.

“It never was educated to me," said Wells, recalling growing up largely with her white mother's side of the family in Indianola, with little talk of race in her family or high school. "There was no talk about the beauty of Blackness, of the history, of all these things that have intentionally been erased or this whole lack of not only knowledge but also representation.”

Now, Wells illustrates the faces she never saw in communities across Iowa. She's painted multiple murals around Des Moines; been named Mainframe Studios' first artist in residence; partnered with The Harkin Institute at Drake University; collaborated with the Des Moines Art Center; and founded Artist X Advocacy (AXA), her mentorship program. The first piece of public art from AXA debuted earlier this year with "I AM"in the Des Moines skywalk.

It wasn't until she got to Drake University, where she studied painting and art history, that Wells was first able to indulge an appetite for a cultural past she'd been deprived of. She graduated from Drake in 2005.

"When I was creating in college at Drake, I intentionally pursued African American studies as my thesis work," Wells said. "That was the first time, educationally, that I had, not only really good access to resources, but a space to create where people were slightly interested in it.”

By mid-2021, her work in the community really began to take off, she said.

Though she'd created other works through Des Moines, she considers the 2021 "Future" mural she painted for the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families, 1171 Seventh St. as her breakthrough piece.

Fellow Des Moines artist Jordan Weber told the Register that "Future" is his favorite mural from Wells.

“That’s one of the strongest murals in the city," Weber said. "She’s carrying her own torch and her own practice and strengths in that arena. And she’s just getting better and better."

'She's easily one of the most caring and focused artists I've ever worked with'

Weber remembers August's sweltering summer heat bouncing off the blacktop in 2021 as he and Wells completed a memorial mural to the late Yore Jieng, a Roosevelt High School freshman killed by a stray bullet in 2016.

When Weber became lead artist on the project, Wells came to mind immediately. Weber considers Wells "easily one of the most caring and focused artists I've ever worked with," an opinion cemented by seeing her work that day.

"She was just getting down and burning through paint markers with me," he recalled. "The palm of her hand burning from the concrete and sweating through that entire project and not one complaint. Just very joyful and grateful to be there executing the mural for Yore and the Oakridge community.”

In September, Wells completed a second mural in the Oakridge community to pay tribute to Jieng. Weber designed that mural, but his work on the East Coast kept him from painting. Wells held the brush to complete the project.

Both that Oakridge mural and a Juneteenth mural were completed with the assistance of her AXA mentees for 2022, Sabah Koko and Jack Marren, respectively.

'How can we honor the history of this location?'

Wells spent this past year as the first artist in residence at Mainframe Studios, a nonprofit organization dedicated to providing workspace for artists. Her role there has been extended into the coming year.

According to Siobhan Spain, Mainframe's director, it was Weber who championed Wells as Mainframe launched its Iowa Creative Incubator pilot program in 2020.

Around the time that program was ending, Wells was looking for a space for AXA, and Mainframe happened to have one. So Wells settled into studio 447 in the building.

In 2023, Spain says she hopes to work with Wells to define and develop what is currently being called the Center Street Studio Fellowship Program. The working title refers to Des Moines' bygone Center Street, a hub for Black culture and business in the city that was paved over to make space for I-235 in the 1960s.

"Like almost every other city in America, (Center Street) was compromised in the name of ‘urban renewal,’" Spain explained. "We realized we're kind of located where a lot of those businesses used to be. How can we honor the history of this location by bringing attention to the need to support Black businesses and culture again?”

Wells will also be working over the coming year with The Harkin Institute as part of a fellowship. Her work there will overlap with her AXA mission. She aims to make the creation and viewing of art accessible to people with disabilities.

One of her biggest projects next year, in May, will be a group exhibition for the Polk County Heritage Gallery in partnership with Mosaic, Mainframe, and The Harkin Institute. The exhibition will feature visual arts from traditional canvas paintings to sculptures to live performances from 13 artists.

"Each artist identifies to be living with one or more disabilities," Wells said of the project. "We decided to title this ‘Freedom of Expression,' and it underscores the relationship between human experiences and the right to human expression and opinions.”

Before that, Wells will take on "Black Thread." With the genealogical research that project entails, she's hoping the work fills in gaps in her own past she hasn't explored before.

“I think that’s going to be quite beautiful," Wells said, "to find out how my mom and dad met and how my brother and sister came to be."

Meet Jill Wells

AGE:  42

LIVES: Des Moines

EDUCATION: Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from Drake University

CAREER: Wells is a multimedia artist and the founder of Artist x Advocate (AXA), a Des Moines-based mentorship program. She's the first artist in residence at Mainframe Studios and is The Harkin Institute for Public Policy and Citizen Engagement's first artist fellow.

FAMILY: One biological child, William, who died of SIDS at 3 months in 2004; one adopted child, Vincent, 15.

Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Des Moines Register. Reach him at ihamlet@gannett.com or 319-600-2124, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.