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 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, 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, Memories of Africa – Sanko, circa 1984