What is it?
Della Wells (b. Milwaukee 1951)
45 x 40 in.
Gifted 2021, The Art Ball Fund
About the Work
Self-taught artist Della Wells sees herself as both a storyteller and an artist. Although her professional career in the arts began at the relatively late age of forty-two, Wells had accumulated a deep reserve of stories and experiences that would find expression in her work. Her mother, who grew up in rural North Carolina during the first half of the twentieth century, filled Wells’s childhood with dramatic stories of life in the South. These memories featured family and friends facing adversity and triumphing against villains. Wells would later learn that many of these tales were untrue, products of her mother’s undiagnosed schizophrenia.
Freedom’s Garden depicts “Mamboland,” an imaginary world run by Black women that serves as the backdrop for much of Wells’s art. The collage is a dense symbolic field. The towering foreground figures represent generations of women leading the way in protest. Butterflies represent transformation—of the United States as well as individuals’ souls. Flowers stand for the blooming of freedom. Watermelons signify stereotypes. The flying girl embodies the desire to fly over adversity. The small, old-fashioned figures in the background are ancestors who paved the way for today’s activists. The chicken in the lower right corner of the collage hearkens back to a formative childhood experience. Her father brought home a chicken, which Wells thought was to be a family pet. She was traumatized when her mother wrung its neck in front of her. It was a painful, yet important, lesson: things must die for other things to live.
Freedom’s Garden is a fundamentally optimistic work. The unfulfilled promises of the American dream must be acknowledged, but Wells’s dignified figures—including Harriet Tubman in the background—cling to the flag as a gesture of hope. Like a garden, the country requires constant tending for freedom to flower. The Museum of Wisconsin Art commissioned the work in the summer of 2020 in the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests.