The methodic tic-tock of a grandfather’s clock echoes throughout the room eventually colliding with a chorus of angelic voices that float overhead. This is only part of the sensory experience that artist/scientist/advocate Bill Wells presents at his exhibit “Spiritual Fluctuations: A Structure by Which the Art of One’s Life Can Be Experienced” in the Huff Gallery at Spalding University.
Sculpture, paintings, installation pieces and participatory art are all part of Wells’ retrospective of not only his art, but also his life. Wells states, “This show has been organized to reflect the seasons of my capacity for discovery through spiritual space-time.” If that sounds confusing, it’s because it is. This is one exhibit where the artist seems to be the only one who comprehends it.
Upon entering the gallery there is an installation piece titled “Waiting for Art Alien Family’s Birth” which is comprised of several painted canvases of various abstract subject matter encircling an incubator which houses three fertilized eggs. Each of these pieces are given titles as well, but are meant to be the bullet points under that one bizarre title.
In this exhibit there are references to: various religious faiths, the great thinker Albert Einstein, the struggle for civil rights in the south, mental illness, running a successful political campaign and even the serenity of Olmstead’s parks. It’s difficult to know what Wells is saying because the exhibit is so varied and vast even the stapled brochure reads like a grocery list. There are 64 pieces in this exhibit.
Upon my visit to the gallery, the artist happened to be walking through and he stopped to inquire if I had any questions. Bill Wells is a tall man with a soft voice and a glint in his eyes that gives you the sense that his mind is always engaged. Realizing that he had a captive audience of one, he gave me a personal tour of the exhibit.
“Art is so neat,” Wells said, “because you enter that creative place where everything just flows.” When talking about his art it became clear that each piece was in reference to a specific event or time in his life, which would then get him talking about his life experiences. He’s been a physics teacher, an urban planner, witnessed the desegregation of Central High School in Little Rock, ran for mayor and in 1975 suffered a mental breakdown that eventually led to his advocacy work with Louisville Metro Disabilities Coalition and the now defunct Advocates Taking Action in Kentucky Against Mental Illness.
Of all the pieces that Wells walked me through, the most telling was For Love of Our Parents.
Bill Wells with For Love of Our Parents
It’s a haphazard paper totem of Wells’ personal achievements. At the top is a photograph of his father taken by Wells. This is one of four photographs by Wells in the exhibit and in my opinion the camera is where his true talent lies. Underneath his father’s photograph is his kindergarten report card with glowing accolades from his teacher and a handwritten “That’s my boy!” by his father’s return signature. Next, a receipt for Poll Tax that his parents signed in 1955 and beside it, in contrast, a memorial poster for a deceased friend and civil right activist in the city of Louisville. A page from a Christian devotional follows this where an asterisked Hebrews 3:15 reads, “Today, if you will hear his voice, do not harden your hearts as in the rebellion.” Last, an oversized sheet of paper, the kind used by students to practice handwriting, says in perfect elementary script, “Happy Valentine To Mother and Daddy From Billy Wells.” Hand-drawn alternating blue and red hearts frames it. When I asked Wells about the piece he said with amazement, “How can a child go from this to being trashed?” The stigma of suffering from a bout of mental illness is one thing that people don’t seem to forget, but something that Wells refuses to let define him.
Bill Wells’ exhibit will be on view until Feb. 19th. In conjunction with this exhibit, a film series and brown bag lunch with discussion will be held from 11:40 a.m. – 12:30 p.m. in the Spalding Library Lecture Lounge. The dates are: Jan. 24th, Jan. 31st and Feb. 7th. Additional information can be found at: http://spalding.edu/visitors/huff-gallery 
title photo: Bill Wells, "The Eye of God"