Rachel Wells Paints Brooklyn With A Touch Of Magic

When Rachel Wells was a child, her grandmother imparted upon her a staunch belief in the “healing virtues of sun, sand and saltwater.” Together, they would go to Coney Island, Brighton Beach and any other sandy shoreline in Brooklyn where they could swim, go on rides, people-watch and soak up the sun.

“I almost drowned many times,” grinned Wells, now 63, as she sat inside the cozy and sun-filled Williamsburg apartment where she has lived and worked for the last past 22 years. “As an adult, I am still at home in the water. I love to swim. I love that people can take off their clothes and are at home [with themselves], away from work. The beach is a great place to be in nature.”

That love of nature, childhood, and Brooklyn is evident in Wells’s personality as well as in her paintings and murals, which capture such universal scenes of joy, tranquility, life and freedom in vibrant colors. Under her imagination and paintbrush, children play in the sand or on the playground, a lone man floats languidly in a canoe along a river, flowers bloom in glass bottles, and families go on field trips.

Born in 1949 and raised in Greenwich Village and in her immigrant grandmother’s Eastern Parkway home, Wells is a Baby Boomer who came of age in a New York and America that was full of youthful exuberance and creative energy – an enthusiasm that she has kept alive in her demeanor and in her artwork despite the passage of time.

“Art was a part of my grade school life [and was] definitely part of the neighborhood. Art was nonconformist, beatnik, anti-war,” said Wells of her earliest art influences. “I was young for a very long time. I think that influences me. I still experience a lot of that excitement about the world – how I see it, how I interact with it. “

Wells is one of those rare artists who have managed to make a living from their craft. After graduating from New York University with a degree in the history of literature and religion, she decided that instead of pursuing theology at a seminary, she would pursue something else she’d always loved: art.

She enrolled in classes at the Women’s Interart Center, started her own greeting card business called Late Night Fantasy Graphics out of her West 35th Street storefront apartment, and then began doing commercial art for magazines and publishing houses. Each silkscreened greeting card was a scene as viewed through a window, from cats sitting on a windowsill and balloons floating in the night sky to fireworks and the Statue of Liberty. Each bursts forth with color, much like Wells’s paintings do now.

Eventually, she decided that commercial art wasn’t for her – “I didn’t want to do ephemera. I wanted things that are one-of-a-kind and lasts,” she explained – so she took three years to draw landscapes and then models at the Art Students League before embarking in 1999 on her painting career.

Color has had a powerful hold on Wells since the days when her uncle, notable 1960s art director John English, would take the whole family to Mexico during summers to collect handcrafts such as a four-and-a-half foot carousel painted in hot pinks, yellows, oranges, reds and turquoise. “Oh, the palate,” she gushed. “The contrast inspired me.”

Like Wells herself, each of her pieces – whether acrylic, oils, clay or silkscreen – has something to say. In the Coney Island Congregation series, which will be joining three other Rachel Wells murals at Woodhull Medical Center this summer thanks to a grant from the Brooklyn Arts Council, the birds flying around “represent the freedom and the ability to fly” while the children playing in the mud, “making their own personal pool” are doing the same things that kids always have – a simple act that that Wells chooses because “all the children I paint are OK; they are happy and loved.”

In “Archaeology of Childhood,” a landscape of fallen wooden and stone pillars – possibly from a fallen pier – dot the ocean near a beach while several silhouettes of adults and children sit in the foreground, as if observing the scenery through a window.  The effect, said Wells, is to present people as “spectators to what once was,” with the scenery as a painted diorama on a museum wall. Birds make an appearance here as well, this time, symbolizing freedom and messengers.

Walking around Wells’s apartment and studio has the feeling of walking into a giant treehouse or simply walking into one of her paintings, which is understandable since many of her paintings line nearly every inch of available wall space that isn’t already lined with shelves for small sculptures, found items, neat piles of fabric and chew toys for her rescue Chihuahuas, Max and Ann.

Paintings of large yellow and red flowers in glass bottles hang on the wall across from a kitchen shelf where sprigs of said flowers sit in miniature versions of the ointment bottles-turned-vases. These models, or “alters,” as Wells calls them, are salvaged from the narrow, grassy lots between houses in and around Williamsburg “where things could grow.”

“I am a hunter and gatherer, too. I am always looking for little weeds and flowers, color and shape,” she explained warmly and matter-of-factly. “I love growing things, living things and a lush life. I’m very lucky I can live with my paintings and sculptures.”

When bringing color and shape to life in a painting, said Wells, “a lot has to do with collage, with layer upon layer upon layer, until what I want to say is there.”

Wells describes her style as “magical realism.” In other words, she takes real-world scenarios and adds a layer of the dream-like in order to convey a message. This can be seen in “The New People on the ‘L’,” the first in her current subway series project. The woman painted is a hybrid of the new Polish immigrants moving into Northern Brooklyn and the artists who have already begun finding a foothold. The baby is a new person as well, and the green hue represents the promotion of subways as a green alternative to cars. Meanwhile, the flying bluebird lends a touch of the mystical, symbolizing happiness.

Between painting and sculpting, Wells also teaches art to toddlers at the Ladybug Family Daycare in Carroll Gardens, teaches drawing to adults at various venues, and cares for children at the city’s Human Resources Administration offices while parents meet with staffers. Her goal now, she said, is simply “to continue and to prosper.”

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