DAMASCUS, PA — Just across the old steel bridge that spans the scenic Upper Delaware River between Damascus and Cochecton, NY, there is a colorful little cottage filled with a lifetime of art created by Nancy Wells.
It’s an intimate place she lovingly calls home.
The old house was once a community landmark—a general store and post office—and has an interesting history in the Upper Delaware River Valley.
According to existing records, the Vail & Appley Store was constructed sometime before 1860; the structure is noted on maps of Damascus dated 1860 and 1872.
The old white-painted clapboard building stood boarded up for years, and in 2005 Wells moved in with her lifetime of art.
“I have a picture with people standing in front of the building, women with puffed sleeves, when it was a general store and post office,” she said. When looking at the vintage picture, “You feel like you’re part of the history of the house.”
The interior of the former general store still has some of the original shelves, spaces that Wells calls “cubbies… wonderful places to store my dolls” and other small treasures. They nestle among her art and collection of masks from around the planet.
Just inside, on window ledges facing the afternoon sun, is a long-lived jade plant, resting silently near a tall fabric sculpture titled “The Birthing of the Lizard Women.”
The latter is a haunting work that at first glance resembles a female mummy wrapped in strips of layered canvas.
As an accomplished poet, a spinner of emotions in rhyme, Wells penned a few words to accompany the lizard-like human representation. It reads in part, “Lizard Woman majestic in your imperfection, seeker of visions, teller of tales… born of dark rich waters, teacher of women crawling snake like on your lizard belly as you unwrap your ancient mystery… your timeless soul emerges wild alive rooted in history.”
Wells created the gothic, larger-than-life-size figure, which cradles a lizard, and the work is prominently displayed in her studio. It seemingly stands guard over thousands of her collected paintings, sketches, watercolors, non-traditional dolls and a table. There she creates her latest series of works, Alumigraphs. That’s a unique printmaking and platemaking process she developed using metal foil.
“When I was a little kid, my mother went to Pratt [School of Art] in 1920 at the time when women were given the right to vote,” recalled Wells.
She added that her parents met while her father was a cadet at the United States Military Academy at West Point.
“She was my first teacher, my spirit,” Wells said of her mother, Catherine Helene Wells. The daughter lovingly displays a framed poem: “Let us create! That which we feel. From the depths of our soul. Our hand moves, as if by some unseen force directs. We follow, and are lost in the ecstasy of creation.”
In love with creativity
Speaking of the creative process, Wells said, “I have always been in love with the process of creativity, and as a child I had my own private closet where I made all kinds of concoctions, mixing whatever I could find.”
She had always wanted “to be an artist; in my heart of hearts, that’s what I wanted to do. I always wanted to be like Marie Curie,” she said, referencing the Polish-born naturalized French physicist and chemist (1867-1934), known for her pioneering research into radioactivity. Curie was the recipient of two Nobel Prizes.
“I like doing my own thing, traveling my own trip… I’d like to be the Marie Curie of art,” the 88-year-old mixed-media artist continued.
Known for her creative manipulation of many materials, Wells explained the reason behind her early so-called “cabinet of curiosities” creations: “I loved the mystery of alchemy.”
In an artist’s statement from a few years in the past, Wells said she was “intensely involved with a multi-cultural, bilingual group of artists, writers, musicians and dancers in East Harlem” during the ’60s through the early ’80s. “They had a special blend of life energy,” she reminisced.
A master of many realms of art
Her works have been exhibited close to home in New York and New Jersey, and as far away as Germany, Spain, Sweden, Korea and Alaska.
The highlights include solo exhibitions at the Cooper Gallery, the Bronx Museum of the Arts, Lincoln Center’s New York State Theatre, Port Washington Library Gallery and in 1967 at the World’s Fair in New York.
Her most recent exhibition was a one-woman show titled “State of Being: The Art of Nancy Wells” at the Wayne County Arts Alliance (WCAA) gallery, located in Honesdale, PA.
“Clearly Nancy Wells is a master in many realms of artistic expression,” said Nancy Diamond, at the time the editor of the WCAA newsletter. “Her inquisitiveness about the journey of life is nourished by the materials, and the fascination she feels as the pieces reveal themselves in a sort of unconscious fashioning… her philosophy of life as a subjective journey through our universe of self.”
Wells said she has always felt an intimate connection with the natural world, and draws inspiration from this personal connection—the roots of trees and the wind passing through life.
“I always identified with the wind, felt like it touches things as it blows through… I’m very close to nature in a sense that we grow as trees grow, and as time goes on, I think about the whole process” in essence from conception through life to the infinite beyond the pale.
Wells said of living in the history-laden house surrounded by old trees, “I love the fact that I feel like I’m supposed to be here, looking out a window; it’s the trees that are so powerful for me.”
History and art “come from the earth, just like us, and a lot of lives have passed through this house,” she said.
Wells said that her current approach to drawing is to close her eyes, get a pencil, and “simply allow my hand to go wherever it feels like going… at some point, I open my eyes... if you really look at my work, you’ll see birds that are free and flying, or lizards that go into the darker side of things. It’s a mix of the spiritual, finding myself,” she explained. “I like the journey, not the knowing, letting the inner side of me out, that’s where I want to go.”
Upcoming projects include a book of her drawings and poetry—“I have hundreds and hundreds of poems”—and working with a noted photographer to create a book featuring her dolls, which Wells described as “little spirit people in past lives.”
For more information about the fascinating artwork by Nancy Wells, contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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