DeLand’s Oakdale Cemetery sits just behind Stetson University and the historical society: a silent archive of the city’s resting, honored dead. Near its center, just next to her parents, lies the grave of a young woman who died in 1988 at the age of ninety-one. At ninety-one she will always remain young for me. One of the first academically trained artists in the area, she taught art and music in DeLand for over thirty years. When she wasn’t painting she taught music. In a sense she taught the city to sing. The DeLand Sun and the people of Volusia County called her Miss Wells.
Collecting Florida art is, for me, a passion, a love affair with the art and the artists. This most true for me when it comes to Lillian Wells. E was first introduced to her about twenty years ago when I found one of her canvases in Lakeland. I was visiting my old friend antiques dealer Maurice Cheeks at his shop off Florida Boulevard in the historic district. Cheeks, in his charming way, showed me an oil on board, titled on the back, “The Shop, an original sketch on Dover Street, Negro section, DeLand, Fla. Painted by Lillian Wells.” It was a sweet little sun drenched scene of three men, escaping the heat of the day on the porch of the shop, under old shaded oaks. In the distance two children and a cowboy with a bandana, and possibly a Stetson, approach. With bold impressionistic brush strokes Lillian defined a quiet DeLand afternoon. it was an old painting, perhaps circa 1925, missing a small corner and needing a cleaning. I purchased it for thirty-five dollars.
The painting was cleaned, framed, and hung in my home. I wondered about the artist but didn’t give her much thought until a few years later when, on my way to Mount Dora, I stopped at an antique shop in Groveland. The shop was full of neat old stuff but one painting, an iconic still life of Florida oranges, caught my eye. I turned the picture over and found the following:
Lillian Wells was born in 1896 in Luxora, Arkansas, moving with her family
to DeLand, Florida in 1911. She attended and graduated from Stetson
University with an AB degree, having majored in music and art. In early
childhood it was evident she had ability in drawing and in later years, using
water colors and oils, she captured the beautiful scenes in nature and the
delicate details of portrait work. Miss Wells also taught voice and piano in her
Wow! I was getting to know her better. Now I wanted to know more. With my interest in Florida art pushing me to microfilm in libraries about the state, it was time to head for DeLand.
First I visited the historical society. Enquires there were met with shrugs except for one bearded old timer who remembered Miss Wells and how as a child he and his friends would occasionally stand outside her home and shout, “Miss Wells can we come in and sing for you?” He told me Wells was buried in a nearby cemetery, and after brief questions at the cemetery office, I found her. What is this strange passion that will drive an art collector-historian to find the grave of one of his favorite artists? Perhaps you will understand if you care about Emily Dickinson or Robert Frost.
Later it was off to the DeLand library. For every inch of microfilm I found on Miss Lillian, I must have scanned through a mile of film. Here’s what I found.
Lillian Wells entered Stetson University’s undergraduate Academy in 1912 and graduated in pianoforte in 1918. She continued on at the school, singing with Stetson’s Vesper’s Choir, serving as secretary of the junior class, and art editor of the school yearbook, Oshihiyi. Harry Fluhart, the first professor of art at Stetson, was her teacher. Catherine Stockwell, later a well-known Florida impressionist, was one of her classmates.
I visited the Stetson University library where a librarian presented me with the 1918 edition of Oshihiyi. I turned a few pages and there was a pretty, dark eyed coed in a lace dress, with bobbed hair, a serious, perhaps shy look, her eyes avoiding a direct gaze. Here was Lillian Juanita Wells, perhaps with Latin blood. The 1917 and 1918 edition of Oshihiyi are full of her humorous cartoons. She graduated with an A.B. from Stetson’s School of Music.
Wells spent some time in New York City, possibly at eh Art Student’s League, before returning to DeLand as one of the first professional artists in Volusia County and head of the music department at the local Y.W.C.A.
One of her first exhibits was noted by the DeLand Sun News, December 22, 1932. “Wide spread interest in painting has been brought to light by the local display of art held by DeLand and guest artists, not in an austere gallery, but in a local store on West Indiana Avenue, in the heart of the city…Much interest has been shown in…the scenes of familiar places and executed by Miss Allen (Anna Allen), Mrs. Lawrence Stockwell, (Catherine Stockwell), Mrs. R. A. Worstall and Miss Lillian Wells.”
The Orlando Sunday Sentinel, February 18, 1933 reporting on the Central Florida Exposition, noted: “Miss Wells, one of the honorary exhibitors this year, represents Volusia County as its foremost young native artists. She has studied both in Florida and New York City and has been awarded prizes at the Central Florida Exposition in previous years. At present she has a gallery of approximately 100 of her paintings in DeLand where she sponsors exhibits of her own work and that of other artist.” That year Well was director of the DeLand Singing Ensemble.
Wells is first listed in the DeLand City Directory in 1924, with her home on North Clara Avenue. In 1926 she moved to 104 1/2 West Indiana Avenue, and in 1944, next door to 111 1/2 West Indiana. The DeLand City Directory for 1944 lists, “Lillian Wells School of Music, Piano and Voice Instruction. Painting Instruction and Paintings.”
The DeLand Sun News would occasionally report, “Miss Wells’ class of juniors give fine piano recital,” or “Miss Lillian Wells to present pupils in a recital.” In February 1945 Miss Wells and her students presented a musical entertainment for the benefit of the Armed Services Club at DeLand High School. There is little note of her artistic accomplishments.
Wells lists in the DeLand Directory as an artist until 1948, and thereafter as Lillian Wells School of Music. She retired in 1977 but is still listed in the DeLand Directory in 1978.
I next met Lillian on eBay. Four of he canvases were listed. I couldn’t believe my eyes. Wow! Few people know about her work but my paranoia made the wait for the auction to end a nervous time. But the paintings were soon mine. One was a double picture, on side with a 1920’s pickup truck outside The Mecca, presumably an old theater in DeLand, another sun drenched impressionistic scene. On the opposite side is what I like to tink of as, A Sunday Morning After Church. There is Lillian, in a pretty Sunday dress, and flowing hat, under a palm thatched hut, about to purchase frit or flowers. Nearby in Sunday best are a gentleman and his wife in quiet conversation. Lovely.
And then there was the Wells painting auctioned at the Burchard Galleries in St. Petersburg. Catalogued as the work of a Lillian Wells from Texas, it was a Florida scene, possibly the Tomoka River, by my old DeLand friend.
Lillian Wells painted forcefully, with moderate impasto, and a shimmering, Renoir like palette, that catches the color and brilliant light of Florida. He landscapes and her picturesque, genre scenes of DeLand are some of the best surviving impressionistic painting of early Florida. There must be dozens of her paintings on the wall of DeLand homes. Let’s find her!
Well that’s Lillian Wells. I hope you liked meeting her. It was an honor for me to introduce you. Perhaps one day when you’re out antiquing you’ll meet her again.