Artist Home Wells provides a strange new beauty

Homer Wells is not your traditional landscape painter. He begins with a sheet of aluminum, which he burnishes and grinds away at with a series of tools. Then he airbrushes on layer after layer of translucent, shimmering automotive paint, in blues, greens and purples, and suddenly there is a vivid seascape. Waves crash and clouds dip down to melt above the horizon, or in his more abstract works, liquid runs in close-up currents. Even after all that motion and excitement what is remarkable about Wells’ work is what goes on after it is done: Depending on the angle of the viewer and the light at a given time — especially when hung outdoors — the piece splashes out to the viewer in a totally different way, from sunrise to sunset.
Although his paintings have been described as serene, Homer’s creative span is far from quiet. “You can’t just do ‘soft’ all the time,” Wells says. “And that’s like me and machines. I need that other side of myself to affirm the whole me. I always thought of myself as a sculptor.”
In 2009, Wells, with a group of partners including Ben Cohen (of Ben and Jerry’s), created a giant kinetic sculpture — part light show, part carnival ride — that he then drove across the country to the Burning Man Festival in the California desert. What he liked about bringing the piece to Burning Man was how “everyone is there to help each other’s project be better. We had so much help, people would just show up out of the blue, like the guy who just brings stuff that he thinks people might need, nuts and bolts and spare parts. He doesn’t make anything, he just brings boxes and boxes of things to help other people.”
The piece, titled Time Cycle, was inspired by a poem by Nikos Kazantzakis: “Learn, lads, that Time has cycles and that Fate has wheels and that the mind of man sits high and twirls them round.” Festivalgoers followed the sculpture as it turned all night for a chance to ride in the two seats perched between its two towering wheels. The seats, Wells said, “were Bolton ski lift chairs. Ten revolutions of the wheels would make one revolution of this middle part, and it was just like with a ski lift: We could let somebody out and have just the time to put somebody in, so we never had to stop.”
Comparing Burning Man to the Rainbow Festival, which he attended this year in Southern Vermont, Wells said, “Burning Man’s ethos is radical self reliance. You’re supposed to go out in the desert, totally prepared for anything and everything. You’re not supposed to depend on other people. With Rainbow it’s the exact opposite. I mean, why do we all want to be separate? Why not ‘I’ll provide the food, you provide the shelter, someone provides the music.’ It’s two different philosophies but I think it comes down to the same thing. People come to share their energy. People just want to give.”
In that spirit Wells brings his creations to other such events, like the animatronic jack-o’-lantern figure he installed near his home in Monkton for the 2008 Haunted Forest. Another idea is to build the world’s largest air cannon, and he described firing a smaller version at a recent Solstice festival in Vermont. His detailed description of the process of stuffing the cannon (stuffed animal, 2 gallons of gasoline-soaked sawdust, stuffed animal again), coupled with his excitement for comparatively how little pressure it really took to create a 30-foot fireball (just 10 pounds, compared to the 80 pounds in a bicycle tire), shows how his mind is always figuring out how to build the next fantastic thing.
Wells says he has been working with unusual materials almost from the start, but his career as an artist seems almost unlikely now given his roots. “I grew up in southern Oregon,” Wells said, “which as near as I can tell is about as culturally deprived a place as I’ve ever been. If we hadn’t had TV I don’t know what I would have done. I mean, compared to the art that’s being made here (in Vermont), everything there was so far behind.”
In high school, Wells joined the Mormon church of his own accord, and then attended Brigham Young University. “Because I was the first one in my family to go to college, I didn’t know that you needed to check in advance to see if what you wanted to take was there,” he remembered. “I wanted to be an architect and they didn’t even have an architecture program.” After two years he left school and the church, but says, “I would give (the school) credit, it was a really good art program. Not so much with the creativity, but I got a lot of really strong fundamentals.”
Luckily, creativity was not something Wells needed to learn. “Part of my personality,” he said, “is I just go with whatever amuses me immediately. I can’t walk through the scrap yard without going, ‘Oh wow! That’s a really interesting part.’” Wells describes his as “the packrat method: Anything you see, whether it be a book, or a turtle skeleton, or a piece of equipment, or a new paper clip. Other people have drawers that they only put pencils in, I just see these things all over.”
Innovating materials played a role in his professional art as well. As a sign-maker, Wells said, “I did a lot of display work for Burton and Converse and Merrill, what that’s all about is using new materials because that’s what gets people’s attention. We discovered that just spinning aluminum was cheaper and faster and more attention-getting than painting it.” Spinning, which is the technique of abrading the surface of the metal, “creates patterns that change and move as you change,” Wells said. “So as you walk by, it kind of flashes at you, ‘Hey look at me, look at me, look at me.’”
Wells turned these techniques to his art when he started creating landscapes. His gravitation towards the ocean would seem unusual for an artist with no obvious connection to the sea, but this comes in part from his wife, Mary. “She grew up on Long Island,” said Wells, and she’s the one responsible for their annual trips to Cape Cod. He doesn’t care to swim in the freezing Atlantic as she does, but says he gets a lot of inspiration sitting on the beach. He also loves the view of water from a kayak. “When you’re down that low on the water at sunset — or even more magical, at night, with the moon overhead — the water, and the surface tension of the water, it seems so much more visceral than in the day.”
Even beyond Cape Cod, Mary’s encouragement for them to travel has been integral to their story together. After meeting at a Bread and Puppet performance, Homer says Mary came knocking on his bus (“I was probably the last person living in a bus in downtown Burlington,” he jokes) and one of the first things she did was tell him they should take a trip. They traveled to Southeast Asia for three months, and after vivid impressions from the airport in India they went back on a second trip during which they spent an entire week at the Taj Mahal.
“Most people only go for an hour. But we got to see the Taj Mahal in the morning, at sunset, and we actually saw a total eclipse of the moon, and I asked Mary to marry me. It was truly because I realized how much this woman was having a great positive effect on my life, getting me to see things and be places that I never would have … I just hunker down and go to work, that’s my whole skill set. I make things, keep moving. But she says no, we have to do things, go places.”
Recently, Mary’s new passion for photography has been having an effect on Homer’s painting. “It’s helped me change and up my game,” Wells said. “I want more detail: photographs have 20 or a hundred colors. Now I want more colors.” In his upcoming exhibit at Edgewater Gallery at the Falls, some of Mary’s photos will be on display along with Homer’s new works.
“My art is really just about exploration and experimentation.” Wells said. “I really don’t want to pretend there’s any hidden meaning. I hope people get meaning out of it, and that they see the beauty, the experimentation, the fact that I am trying to create something new. A strange new beauty that changes the way they look at things, and see that there is no light and dark, just light moving around.”

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