Della Wells was born in 1951 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin and is a self-taught artist. As a child, she invented stories and characters based on her mother’s recollections of growing up in North Carolina during the 1920s through the 1940s. Wells used these stories to escape the uncertain realities created by her mother’s mental illness and her father’s rage and eventually used them to inspire the collage art she creates today.
Wells feels strongly that “being a master of your spiritual self does not come until you understand from where you came from.” She incorporates her own folklore in her work which often has subtle symbols from the civil rights struggle. Wells works in various media, from collage to painting and folk art dolls.
Della Wells was one of the two recipients of the City of Milwaukee’s Artist of the Year Award for 2016. Her work has appeared in various publications including Self Taught, Outsider and Folk Art Guide to American Artists, Locations and Resources by Betty-Carol Sellen and Cynthia J. Johnanson and the book, Permission To Paint Please: A 150 Year History of African American Artists in Wisconsin written by Evelyn Patricia Terry.
Her work has been exhibited in Europe and throughout the U.S. Portrait Society Gallery presents her work annually at the Outsider Art Fair in New York City and in 2021 introduced her work at Untitled (Art Basel) Miami. A play about her life, “Don’t Tell Me I Can’t Fly” was written for a performance at The Kennedy Center in Washington, D. C. and it was also presented in Wisconsin. She has illustrated two children’s books.
Recent solo exhibitions include "Souls Bloom in This Garden," Andrew Edlin Gallery, NYC, in 2022; "Her Story, My Dreams: The Images of Della Wells,” 2018 at Loyola University Museum of Art, Chicago; "Another Happy Mambo Day: The Invented Worlds of Della Wells,” Wright Museum, Beloit College, 2017. Wells is currently the Annette and Dale Schuh Visiting Artist at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater.
Catalog essay, M. Shadee Malaklou, “Welcome to ‘Mambo Land,’ where black lives matter because they don’t: An Afro-pessimist reading of Della Wells’ black feminist world-making.”