What does it say about Peoria that an artist who lives thousands of miles away regularly travels to the area to paint? Millard Wells, a Floridian, makes the trek frequently to teach, paint, and plan his next projects in central Illinois. And of course to visit his daughter, Hotel Pere Marquette Director of Sales and Marketing Joel Green.
Born in Arkansas more than 80 years ago, Wells said he’s been actively engaged in creating aesthetics from the time he could hold a pencil. "I was interested in art from the very beginning, drawing my surroundings. While still in Arkansas, I had a strong passion for recreating things I wanted-like airplanes. I was interested in drawing the things I was denied; it made it almost as good as having them."
After his family moved to Michigan, he encountered several people who inspired him in his pursuit. "Richard Mines taught me first of all how to draw a circle-doing it in segments rather than in one sweep. He taught me how to sketch lightly, then increase in boldness. Drawing wasn’t good enough, though, and I began to add values and color. My teacher, Mrs. Henderson, taught me that drawing was a ’plan’ to paint by, starting with values, moving into the color wheel and color values. She taught me a great deal about drawing on location, or ’plein aire.’"
Wells’ teacher emphasized the importance of painting in the moment. "She allowed me to go out the back door and take steps in any direction, then I had to sit down and paint something I saw there. I started in water colors because it was clean, accessible, and I could do values as well as color," he said.
Perhaps because of all he learned from his mentors, Wells won a four-year Ralph Harmon Booth scholarship to the Flint Institute of Art after high school. He went on to join the Army, but even then, art followed him. "I went in as ’limited service’ because of impaired vision, so they encouraged me to paint and provided supplies so I could continue. My division was specifically called ’Special Services, Morale Division.’ We were asked to design posters and pamphlets for war bond sales and fund raisers during World War II."
About three years into his service with the Army, Wells became art editor of the soldier magazine Saltwater Syndacate and taught crews on hospital ships to publish a newspaper on board that would later become a momento of their service. It was also during this time that he had a one-man show at the Gibbs Art Center in Charleston and won several prizes for watercolor. He also exhibited in a National Soldier Art Show, and those paintings were published in a book called Soldier Art. "The paintings themselves were displayed in the National Gallery of Art in Washington, D.C.," he said.
At the close of his military service, Wells enrolled in the Institute of Design in Chicago, which specialized in design concepts. "During that period, I worked for a display company in Chicago. We were licensed by Disney to use their characters for displays in department stores. These Disney characters were not only two-dimensional, but also three-dimensional-carved, sculpted, and animated-for window displays," he said.
Today, Wells owns and operates the Wells Studio-Gallery in Islamorada, Fla., published a book called Florida Keys Impressions in 2000, and runs guided painting trips through his studio-gallery. He also finds time to visit Peoria and perhaps do some work while he’s here. "I don’t think there’s any town that could be more inspiring than Peoria. It has it all: the waterfront, history, river, architecture, and flat open country sky that doesn’t inhibit the sun or the clouds."
In the past, Wells’ visits to Peoria have included conducting watercolor workshops and painting the natural wonders of Wildlife Prairie State Park, where some of those paintings soon will be offered through the park’s gift shop. During a previous visit, he also painted a watercolor of the Murray Baker Bridge, which is currently displayed at Picture This in Peoria Heights, according to Green.
This trip, Green said, he took some additional photographs of the scenery at Wildlife Prairie State Park and at the Hotel Pere Marquette, where a special project yet to be announced is now in the planning stages.
Wells said there’s such a large pool of creative images to draw from in central Illinois, which is part of the reason he’s drawn back. "The historical features of this town show up in artists’ work all over the city; they seem to cherish this feature of their community and integrate it with the industrial. Most of Peoria’s industrial leaders, like Caterpillar, have done a lot to preserve the environmental texture-the hills, plains, and shorelines. I’ve also seen huge changes in the quality of the Illinois River-also a painter’s haven. And the farm country surrounding Peoria is God’s gardens." AA!