I sat next to Brian Wells at the Rainbo Club for many years before I knew he was a painter. Wells is quiet and unassuming. When he talks, it's deliberate: he pauses to think before he speaks. We often sat together and barely exchanged a word. Occasionally I'd overhear him talking about construction or carpentry jobs. But one day he complimented one of my paintings, which was hanging behind the Rainbo's stage, and mentioned in passing that he was a painter as well.
I looked up his art website. There was something so familiar about Wells's pictures of dumpsters and abandoned storefronts. I was hooked. The more I looked at them, the more it felt like I knew these places. Then one day while I was passing by a long-vacant restaurant near the corner of 35th Street and Ashland, it clicked: I did know the places in his paintings. After that first discovery I was able to identify a dozen other sites he'd rendered, including a dumpster that had briefly stood next to the McDonald's in Pilsen. All these places are on the south side. As Wells tells me when I visit his home and studio, he's interested in depicting the Chicago that regular people see and live in. The Mag Mile, the Bean, Navy Pier, and Wrigley Field won't be appearing in a Brian Wells painting anytime soon.
The modest McKinley Park house Wells has shared with his wife, Barb, for the past 21 years is painted a cheerful turquoise. He chose the color after a neighbor a few doors down painted his own house red. Wells wanted to see how the two colors would bounce off each other.
Drawing and painting have been vital to Wells since he was young. He grew up in a small town in Ohio outside Cincinnati. He remembers making a drawing of every seat in the school auditorium where he had study hall when he was 15. That drive to document his surroundings made him realize that art would be his life. He got his first set of oil paints the next year and made a portrait of his sister. He knew nothing about oil and developed a lot of bad habits. It wasn't until he attended art school at Miami University in Ohio that he learned proper methods, lessons that remain useful to him to this day.
Wells moved to Chicago in 1984 after getting his MFA in painting from the University of Kentucky in Lexington. He thought he'd have a big-city art career. "I was moving to this metropolis . . . I wanted to be where the action was. [That impulse] went away after a few months." He started working on big construction crews to pay his rent, but he kept painting. He leased a studio at the corner of Churchill and Leavitt, in pregentrification Wicker Park, but he refused to participate in neighborhood art events like Around the Coyote. "Every time I've done open studio, somebody says, 'You're gonna make $400-$500.' I've never sold a single thing from open studios."
In grad school, Wells painted what he calls monster paintings, eight-by-12-foot canvases full of thickly painted hairy, gnarly people. They fit in with the neo-Expressionism that dominated the art world in the early 80s. But when he moved to Chicago, he consciously left these autobiographical monsters behind. He started painting pictures of the factories he would pass while walking his dog or to and from construction jobs. He displayed several of these at Tony Fitzpatrick's World Tattoo Gallery in the South Loop in the early 90s.
Wells's work has mutated and developed over the decades. A series of comical drawings and woodcuts featuring monkeys and ants doing very human and often aggressive things to each other was inspired by a big Chicago snowstorm in 1993. Watching people try to dig their cars out of the drifts reminded him of the animal world. After that Wells tried his hand at abstraction. "I wanted to own an abstract painting, but they were too expensive," he explains. Wells often answers questions with dry, deadpan humor.
But his devotion to painting is no laughing matter. His house is covered in his and friends' art. He pointed out a Joseph Albers print he and his wife scored at a thrift store; it's one of their prize possessions. His carpentry skills are evident in the two bas-relief wall decorations he's made out of used woodblocks from his prints. The whole house is a sort of art environment—everywhere you look there are paintings, sculptures, and crafts lovingly fashioned by hand and collected by a couple who are utterly devoted to human creativity. I wished I'd had a lot longer to soak it all in than the few hours I had.
What does it mean to make art for 40 years if nobody knows about it? "Most people don't care if you keep producing if you don't have a career [in art]," Wells says. "The problem is what happens to the work when you die."
Wells and his wife talk about leaving the city someday. "If I have a patch of time, I'd do landscape," he says. "Barb and I talk about moving to Kentucky and living cheaper." His wife reminds him she doesn't want to be saddled with a house full of his artwork once he's gone. This is a very real concern for any artist who has toiled away for decades. Unless one has gallery representation or some sort of institutional affiliation, there's a real danger of a life's work disappearing. "They say most of it just gets thrown out."
Some of Wells's recent work depicting shuttered south-side storefronts, auto dealerships with sinister advertising inflatables, and patches of blacktop with manhole covers will be on display at the Rainbo Club in September. His work deserves to be seen in person. As with most good painting, a computer screen or a postcard doesn't do it justice. I look forward to sitting next to him at that bar next month, taking in his pictures of the Chicago we both know so well, and repaying the compliment he paid me years back. v