Ascendant Collage Artist Della Wells Reflects on Her Childhood and the American Dream

Collagist, doll-maker, painter and storyteller

Della Wells is finally getting her moment.

So far this year, her work has already been featured at Milwaukee’s Portrait Society and RedLine galleries; the Main Street Gallery in Clayton, Georgia; and the Outsider Art Fair in New York City. And one of her collages was auctioned by the Huntsville Museum of Art in Alabama.

This is what success looks like for the 67-year-old. She finally has the platform to share her story.

Wells’ collages depict stylized, sometimes bleak portraits of black maternity in America, based on her dysfunctional upbringing.

Images via From left to right: “The Nation Built on Our Backs,” “Do I Have to Deal with You Again, Miss Anne?” and “Alice’s House”

The lifelong Milwaukeean took her first art history course around age 39. Not long before that, Wells discovered that many of the stories her mother had shared when Wells was growing up were untruths, resulting from untreated schizophrenia. And her father was, in her own words, a “very angry” man.

Wells admits she grew up angry too, which she attributes to misinformation pumped through the cathode-ray tubes of her family’s TV set. “I grew up in the ’50s and ’60s,” she says. “There was ‘Leave it to Beaver.’ There was ‘Father Knows Best.’ You know, the American Dream, and we were told to believe in the American Dream. And I kept wondering why my family was so screwed up.”

Wells says that, as a child, she thought every white kid got straight A’s and their home lives were “hunky-dory.” Over the last 40 years, she has stockpiled life stories while working as a waitress, bank employee, typist and saleswoman. That trove of experiences has effectively silenced those stereotypes.

“We need to learn each others’ stories,” she says. “It would be a better world if we would live in other people’s worlds.”

Wells has learned not to trust sitcoms. She trusts the people she’s talking to, the artwork they create and the stories they share.

“Local Talent: Della Wells” appears in the April 2019 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning April 1, or buy a copy at

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Adam is a journalist who recently returned to his Wisconsin home after graduating from Drake University in December 2017. He interned with MilMag in the summer of 2015 and has been a continual contributor ever since. Follow him on social media @Could_Be_Rogan