By Karen Billing
Rancho Santa Fe artist Jean Wells specializes in the fun, the playful, and the larger-than-life. Those needing proof need look no further than the giant Hershey’s kiss in her living room. It’s 18 feet tall, sitting comfortably between the living room couch and the kitchen table.
A fun secret: It smells like chocolate inside.
“My husband is so flexible,” Wells said. “He told me ‘All I need is a sofa.’”
Wells’ life-size, pop-infused mosaics can be found all over her home, returned from showings or resting before going off for another. Right inside her doorway is her “Urban Fruit Tree,” 16 feet tall and 11 feet wide, with branches topped by items such as hamburgers, Coke bottles and Hershey’s kisses, back home from stints in Chicago and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art last year.
“I’m having a really good time. I feel very, very lucky,” said Wells. “It’s still a surprise to me, I pinch myself every day…What I like the most is people’s response to it, they tell me my work makes them happy and makes them laugh.”
Everything about her art is whimsical, even down to the fact that her sculptures are delivered and art materials picked up in a remade Good Humor ice cream truck. What could be happier than an ice cream truck?
Currently, Wells’ big, glittering hot dog is part of the “Pop Culture” exhibit at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art on the Pepperdine University campus in Malibu. Wells was excited to share the room with works of art by artists she respects, such as James Rosenquist, Tom Wesselmann and her “hero” Andy Warhol. She is only one of three living artists featured in the exhibit that runs through Dec. 2.
Her work is also currently on display in galleries in Paris, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Laguna Beach. Locally, she has works in the San Diego Air and Space Museum; the Oceanside Musuem of Art; 17 pieces in the Kinsella Library in La Jolla; and one special fish in the R. Roger Rowe School Library.
Recently, her Chanel bottle was snatched up by the Chanel headquarters in New York City.
“I am influenced by pop culture and I enjoy making iconic sculptures of things that are not seen as that important and make them important by making them big and sparkly,” Wells said.
The Seattle native was born into an artistic family—she is a third generation mosaic artist.
“We did everything in our family,” she said of their explorations in painting and sculpture. “When I went to kindergarten I thought everyone was an artist. We were always doing art.”
As a teenager, she served as an apprentice to her father as he worked on the St. Demetrios Greek Church in Seattle, a largescale Byzantine-style mosaic. Her artist table was the family pool table and her father handed her squares to cut, only allowing her to do background pieces.
Wells studied graphic design in college and worked in advertising while raising her two children, but never let go of her love of creating. Once her children left home, she decided to devote more time to sculpture and mosaics and had her first solo show in 2007.
Her mosaic pieces are characterized by sparkle and shine, everything from hamburgers to six-foot-tall women in bathing suits gets the twinkle treatment.
“I was always attracted to sparkle,” said Wells, noting she loves to infuse her art and her life with big, bright colors and healthy doses of “pizzaz.”
It can take six months to a year to complete one of her large-scale pieces, but she usually has more than one project going on her studio, located in a separate space outside her home — roll-up doors allowing for transport of her larger than life pieces.
She is in her studio every day, “I love to work,” she says.
Glass is stored in shelves organized in a rainbow of color. She hand-cuts the glass and will apply it to a polyurethane foam. A naked foam formed into a yo-yo sits on her table ready to be transformed, on another sits a fish that is in for a scale repair.
A big future project is parked right outside her roll-up doors: A small plane. The plane is part of a commissioned project from Las Vegas for a “21st Century Noah’s Ark.”
The plane will serve as the arc and animals will be created two-by-two with the largest being giraffe heads poking out of the cockpit all the way down to tiny, glittery ants.
“There’s never a lull,” said Wells. “It’s always go, go, go.”
To learn more about the “Pop Culture” exhibit at the Frederick R. Weisman Museum of Art, visit arts.pepperdine.edu/museum. For more on Wells, visit wellsart.com