Dennis Wells is a personable guy with a somewhat quiet presence that still commands a room without effort. He is affable and always has a moment to spare when needed, never making any of his peers feel dejected or diminished. His character and involvement in nonprofits and other organizations within Winston-Salem’s arts district makes him admirable enough — then you see his work. His use of highly contrasting colors and compliments from across the palette, as well as placement of size and shapes, leads the eye around the canvas in a seemingly organic fashion. I assure you, no single placement of brushstroke or color choice occurs by spontaneous happenstance; such is the case with works other than his abstract portraits. Although I had known Dennis and admired his work for years, I had never really taken the time to find out the history behind it, his history, and longed to know more. What follows is the result of said Q&A.
Pat Berryhill: Dennis, thank you for taking time to do this today. I know how busy you stay with everything.
Dennis Wells: It’s no problem. Thank you.
PB: What was it that made you want to be an artist? Do you remember a definitive event or place and time? Perhaps your first serious piece of artwork? The thing that made you say you wanted to do this for the rest of your life?
DW: I am not really sure if I have a definitive time, place, or event. I have always been drawn to art, no pun intended, and I have always loved to create. My dad worked for a company that reproduced blueprints. The machines they used fed off large rolls of paper. Occasionally a roll would still have paper on it but it wasn’t enough for the machine. I remember him bringing them home and I would roll out the paper on the floor and draw for hours on end. I can honestly say that I have never envisioned a time when art wasn’t a part of my life. Creating is almost a compulsion or an addiction and I just consider myself blessed for it to be so large a part of my life.
PB: Do you have any formal training as an artist or were you self-taught? What do you feel are the pros and cons?
DW: I guess I would say that I am primarily self-taught. I was fortunate to attend a high school that offered a lot of art classes with a fantastic art teacher. The way our schedules worked, we had a lot of electives and I took pretty much every art class offered. People had frightened me with the “starving artist” scenario though, and when I went to college I majored in Graphic Design instead of art. Everything I have learned since high school has been from studying other artists’ work and practices, reading, and experimentation. I’m not sure I am qualified to speak on the pros and cons of one over the other.
PB: How long have you been involved in the art scene? Has it always been in Winston-Salem?
DW: I have been creating my entire life, but I have only been showing and selling my work for about 10 years. My first shows were before I moved to Winston, but I’m not sure you would say there was an art scene in northeastern NC. There were a few local shows and I traveled to participate in some others. Moving to Winston, where there are a lot more opportunities, and being able to focus on art full-time, has made a major difference.
PB: I know that you have affiliation with several galleries around Winston. Where else has your work shown? You are also on the curator team with AFAS and have some additional rolls at Delurk? If I am incorrect, please correct me. I may or may not talk about the Delurk/AFAS aspect.
DW: I am a full time member at Delurk, part of the exhibition committee, and help some with hanging, etc.
I wear a lot of hats at AFAS. I am an artist, a board member, part of the curating committee, part of the arts and education committee, part of the park and building committee, and a Red Dog Gallery associate.
I have been part of several shows in Greensboro, most recently a solo show at The Artist Bloc. Which led to the honor of me and my work being the subject of a lesson at [North Carolina] A&T. I have had work in shows at The Carrack, in Durham, and also the Durham Arts Guild. There was also at the McColl Center in Charlotte. Modern,a high end furniture and home furnishing store in Charlotte. I have also had work at the Cornelius Arts Center and was part of a show on the campuses of UNCW and High Point University.
PB: How did you develop your style over time? Many people compare you to Picasso. Although the influence is evident, in what ways would you say your work differs?
DW: Cubism and Fauvism captured me at first sight. The idea of abandoning naturalistic colors and tones and breaking images down to basic shapes and then building them back up, sometimes from multiple perspectives simultaneously, was very appealing. It’s the freedom to destroy what you see and remake it as you choose instead of being servile to recreating it. As for Picasso, I have always been intrigued by his work and I suppose I am honored by any comparison.
PB: Your In Their Own Words series seems as if it would be one of your more tedious works and is starkly different than your other work. What inspired you to start that series?
DW: The ITOW series can lead to blurred vision and cramped hands but I’m not sure I would say it’s a tedious process. [Laughs] The series started with a single piece for a specific show. Each year, AFAS does the Unbound and Unleashed show in coordination with the Bookmarks Festival [of Books and Authors]. All the work in the show must have a connection to literature. I decided it would be interesting if the literature was actually part of the art. My first thought was to cut shapes from the pages of a book and create an image. I felt bad about destroying a book and I also wanted the words to actually be legible. I settled on the idea of a high contrast black and white image with the “black” sections created by hand writing in the text small and close. I decided on Edgar Allan Poe, a personal favorite, and used excerpts from his writing. I called the piece Edgar Allen Poe, In His Own Words. The piece was so well received that I decided to make it a series and just stuck with the In Their Own Words.
PB: You are involved with Art-o-Mat. Some of my favorite pieces there are your stencils. Have you ever done those on a larger scale? I know you have done In Their Own Words in T-shirts. Have you ever considered doing graphic version tees of your stencils?
DW: I love Art-o-Mat! I have used stencil and masking techniques in some of my paintings but not the black over splattered spray paint like the blocks. I did make two slightly larger versions, five by seven, of the blocks for the [December-January] show at Delurk. I had never really thought about doing T-shirts from that series of blocks. It’s an interesting idea.
PB: There have been times you were involved in public artworks on a larger scale. Can you talk to me about the most recent thing you were involved in?
DW: Being involved with public art is an awesome opportunity that I have had since moving to Winston. I have done paintings for Unleashed on the Green — the large panels at the parking deck — and the Art Tower. I also created the Clockwork Kid sculpture on top of Miller’s [Variety Store]. I painted a small part of the group mural on the side of Miller’s as well. I also painted a full-wall mural in the first-floor men’s room of the new AFAS Arts Center. I have three recent public art endeavors. I was honored to be chosen to create a large ITOW piece of Dr. Maya Angelou for the newly remodeled Benton Convention Center. A large, or at least long, mural I was invited to paint in West Salem at the intersection of Laurel and Academy. I also received a grant to start the Camel City Rainworks project. These are water-activated art pieces, meaning they only show up when the surface they are on becomes wet. So far there are four of these in downtown Winston with more to come when the weather warms. I am currently looking for artists and locations for this ongoing public art project. I am also currently working on a new sculpture for a yet undecided location downtown.
PB: I’ve also heard talk about collaborative pieces. Are you at liberty to talk about that? What about any other things in the works?
DW: I don’t want to talk too much about the collaborations. I will say I am working on collaborative pieces with several other artists for a show several months down the road. I try to stay busy. I have an upcoming show in Spartanburg, SC, that will open February 15 at The Art Lounge that I am really excited about because it is that much closer to my goal of getting a show back in Greenville, SC, where I grew up. I will also have a feature space in Delurk … in February.
PB: Is there anything you’ve always wanted to do creatively that you have yet to try?
DW: So many things! I love to experiment and try new techniques and materials. I really want to learn how to make fused glass and I have also always wanted to try lost wax casting.