Profile: Yvonne Wells (1939-)

Yvonne Wells is an African-American folk artist and quilter from Tuscaloosa, Alabama. She is best known for her self-taught style and her story quilts depicting scenes from the Bible and the Civil Rights Movement.

Early life

Wells’s mother was an elementary school teacher, and her father was a Presbyterian minister. As a child, she played sports competitively, including on a traveling softball team. Wells was one of nine children. Both her parents passed away before Wells had completed her Bachelor’s degree at Stillman College, where she studied Physical Education. Her siblings also studied at Stillman.

After college, Wells worked as a physical education instructor at Druid High School in Tuscaloosa, her alma mater, until in 1970 she was hired to teach at Tuscaloosa High School, where she experienced firsthand the struggles of school integration in Alabama.In 2009, recalling the civil rights era, she told an interviewer that “During that time it was the most tense time that I have ever experienced between the races. You could just almost cut it.”

Wells retired from teaching in 2000.

Arts career

Despite coming from a region renowned for African-American quilters like Mozell Benson, Nora Ezell, and the quilter’s cooperative in Gee’s Bend, Wells did not grow up in a tradition of quilting and did not began her craft until middle age. She made her first quilt in 1979.

A self-taught artist, Wells describes her process as born originally from a utilitarian desire for a warm garment, which spurred a long artistic career making more creative quilts. In 2010, Wells told American Studies professor Stacy Morgan, “[W]hen I first got started I was piecing—my kind of piecing. There was no pattern. It was just fabric, or curtains, or clothes, or socks, or anything that I was using at the onset.” In 2011, Wells said that she had begun using a quilting frame, but that most of her work still took place sitting on the floor.

In the mid-1980s, Wells began creating her signature “story” and “picture” quilts, incorporating a diverse range of found materials and sewing mostly by hand. Her 1986 quilt, “Crucifixion”, which depicts the biblical scene, is the first example of a story quilt in her oeuvre. At her most prolific, Wells has said she produced “about twenty quilts a month,” even while teaching full time.

The first exhibition of Wells’s quilts was in 1985, at the Kentuck Art Festival in Northport, Alabama, after her agent, a Tuscaloosa folk art dealer named Robert Cargo, convinced her to show her work in public. That year, her quilts were awarded Best in Show, an award she went on to receive at the festival again in 1990, 1991, 1995, 1997, and 2004.

One of Wells’s first exhibitions outside of Alabama was in the 1989 traveling quilt exhibit “Stitching Memories: African-American Story Quilts,” shown, among other places, at Williams College of Art in Massachusetts.

In an interview, Wells said, “My work is not traditional. I like it that way. If people tell me to turn my ends under, I’ll leave them raggedy. If they tell me to make my stitches small and tight. I’ll leave them loose. Sometimes you can trip over my stitches they’re so big. You can always recognize the traditional quilters who come by and see my quilts. They sort of cringe.”

In 2018 and 2019, Wells served as Creative Director for the Tuscaloosa 200 Bicentennial Project, where she oversaw the creation of a collaborative quilt commemorating the occasion.

New York Times art critic Martha Schwendener called Wells’s 1989 quilt “Yesterday: Civil Rights in the South III” an “epic quilt that shows the Mayflower arriving in North America, with a black man rowing a white man ashore.” Schwendener compared Wells’s quilting practice to that of Harriet Powers, a 19th century slave in Georgia who made quilts that told stories from the Bible.

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