Artist Jill Wells’ mission to make sure everyone has access to art.
Words by Colson Thayer | Photo by Janae Patrice Photography
While Jill Wells was finishing her art degree at Drake University, her brother’s arteriovenous malformation caused a brain hemorrhage in his sleep when he was in high school. Their mother found her brother, LeeCole, the next morning and life-flighted him to the hospital. After 11 months in a coma, he woke up without his sight.
When the two siblings were young, they bonded over art. But now, visual art isn’t accessible to LeeCole.
“How can I create work for individuals who are living with different levels of sight impairment?” Wells asked herself.
She tried to incorporate varying levels of accessibility in her work at Drake but found that she was not educated enough on the subject and had no real connections to experts. Because of this, she had to take a step back from that initiative.
Years later, Disability Rights Iowa reached out and asked Wells to create a mural in 2020. Fortunately for Wells, this meant she could finally connect and learn from disability rights experts. Through Karen Cunningham and the Iowa Department for the Blind, she learned the dos and don’ts of creating accessible art.
While working on the project, Wells purchased a 136-page hard copy of The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 written in braille.
“What would happen if I painted on it?” she asked.
With water-soluble oil paints, Wells was able to glide across the surface of the legislation. The convex and concave nature of braille created natural points of negative white space. She compared it to how light enters the retina. The piece ended up looking like a celestial collection of little stars.
Not only was this piece a visual masterpiece, but a tactile one as well.
“There was a lot that I felt like that paper, that medium, offered to a conversation,” Wells says.
In May 2022, Wells put her FEEL exhibit on display at the Plymouth Gallery, in the Plymouth Congregational Church in Des Moines.
“Drawing on the powerful legislation of The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Wells presents FEEL, to raise questions about history, access, transformation, freedom, sensory input, light and dark, and above all highlights the absence or marginalization of communities who have long been denied representation within arts realms,” Wells stated in a press release.
Oftentimes at art exhibits, artists will post signs instructing viewers not to touch the pieces. However, Wells posted signs encouraging touch and interaction with the art.
The exhibit included a variety of braille-focused pieces, including painted pages of the legislation, tactile butterflies, and lightboxes with holes drilled through the braille dots to allow LED lights to shine through.
But one of the most meaningful pieces of the collection was her soundboard.
“That was the first piece of art that I’d actually have been able to create that I felt like was very successful — that my brother could interact with,” Wells says.
The soundboard featured felt braille dots that played music and sounds through headphones when interacted with.
Wells plans to continue to be a champion for inclusive art.
“When it comes to inclusion, oftentimes, DEI somehow defaults to race first, and I would love for the conversation to open up very quickly that it is so much more than that,” she says.