OCAD University mourns the passing Dorothy Henriques-Wells

Portrait of an elderly woman of colour
Friday, March 16, 2018 - 3:30pm

Dorothy Henriques-Wells, the first Black graduate of the Ontario College of Art, has passed away at the age of 92 in Miami. A gifted painter who brilliantly depicted the flora and landscapes of her native Jamaica, Henriques-Wells was also a teacher for 20 years. She passed on her passion to her three children who also pursued creative and educational careers.

Associate Professor Andrea Fatona, Director of the Graduate Program in Criticism and Curatorial Practice, spent some time with Henriques-Wells:

“I became aware of Dorothy and her work while conducting research for The State of Blackness: From Production to Presentation project. In 2015, I had the pleasure of meeting with an elegantly dressed, ninety-year old Dorothy and her two daughters in my hotel room in Biscayne Bay, Miami. We talked about her work, her early training in Jamaica with Armenian artist, Koren der Harootian, her experiences of being one of the few Black students at OCAD U in the 1940s, and the Jamaican art scene of the 1970s.  

Although her health and memory were failing, her eyes lit up as we pored over images of her oeuvre including her graduating work from OCAD U. Dorothy spent a lifetime creating emotive, translucent portraits of landscapes and people within the places she lived. Her poetic, realist approach to her subjects – nature and humans –  is sparse, flowing and vibrant with sun-kissed colours.

Thank you, Dorothy Henrique-Wells, watercolourist, OCAD U alumna, and gem in the trove of Jamaican artists. Your work lives on.”

To read more about Dorothy Henriques-Wells, visit OCAD U’s InStudio.




watercolour of a bird of paradise flower, untitled
Black and white photo of Dorothy Henriques-Wells with a young daughter
watercolour of trees and mountains

You might not know Dorothy Wells, but you should

Photo of Dorothy Wells with young daughter

Dorothy Wells with young daughter

Dorothy Henriques Wells is a remarkable woman. Among her numerous accomplishments — which include being a recipient of Jamaica’s Silver Musgrave Medal for Art and being represented in Jamaica’s National Collection — is the fact that she was the first black alumnus of OCAD U, or what was then known as the Ontario College of Art. This is no superficial distinction. In 1950, the year she graduated, it was very uncommon to see black students in post-secondary arts programs. In fact, until recently, researchers at OCAD U believed that the first racialized students of OCA graduated in the 1970s, but upon further digging in the archives they were surprised to find Dorothy. This means that Ms. Wells was the first and only graduate of colour from the period spanning the founding of the institution until twenty years later, which made her very much alone in her experience as a racialized student at OCA in the 1940s and ‘50s.


Photo of Dorothy Wells

Photo by Martin Iskander

To cope with the solitude Dorothy would return to her literal and proverbial roots and paint the plant life of her native Jamaica. In a recent interview with INSTUDIO, the now 90 year-old was keen to reminisce about the large plot of land that she grew up on near Kingston, Jamaica. The acreage was lush with fruit trees, flowers and other colourful plants. Her mother was a keen gardener who tried her hand at painting the landscape of their beautiful estate, and Dorothy proudly carried on that passion when she later pursed an artistic career.


Dorothy Wells, untitled

Dorothy Wells, untitled

Dorothy Wells, OCAD Thesis Painting, circa 1950

Dorothy Wells, OCAD Thesis Painting, circa 1950

Emily Cluett is an emerging curator enrolled in OCAD University’s Criticism & Curatorial Practice MFA program.

This enthusiasm for painting took Dorothy around the world: from Jamaica to Canada, then Senegal, and eventually the United States. But regardless of where she found herself, Dorothy would return time and time again to Jamaican flora as her most cherished subject matter. Paintings such as Mountainscape – Jamaica are considered to be typical of the realist watercolour style that she developed during her studies at OCA. The colours are vibrant, lively and bright, and stand in sharp contrast to the grey-scale landscape of the Canadian winters Dorothy would have experienced while studying in Toronto.

Although she did not have fellow black classmates at OCA, there was one black model who posed for her life-drawing classes. Dorothy was very interested in this model and for her final thesis project, painted a stunning portrait of her in a traditional head-wrap and colourful garb. To choose this woman, dressed in this way, as her subject matter is significant as it speaks to how profoundly important her culture and connection to home was. It’s a connection that continues to this day.

Ms. Wells’ passion for art has also been passed on through her teaching. She taught art for 20 years, influencing countless future artists. Her children, whom she also taught, now work in the areas of documentary film, architecture and education. Through them, through the many others she’s inspired, and through her own artistic works, her legacy continues.

Dorothy Wells , Mountainscape Jamaica

Dorothy Wells , Mountainscape Jamaica

Dorothy Wells, Memories of Africa – Sanko, circa 1984

Dorothy Wells, Memories of Africa – Sanko, circa 1984

By Emily Cluett, MFA, Criticism and Curatorial Practice (cand.) 2017
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