The dramatic landscape of the southwestern United States has been the inspiring muse of many artists over the centuries. Evidence of this can be seen from the ancient pictographs and petroglyphs throughout the area to the various artist townships that continue to call places like Sedona, Taos and Santa Fe home. For many artists, the attraction is light, which lays bare the beauty of the landscape in a way that is not replicated in other environments.
Of course, this was the case with artist Cady Wells (1904–1954), who first fell in love with the area when he was sent as a teenager to Evans Ranch School in Arizona. He then spent most of the rest of his life in the American Southwest, mainly in the Santa Fe area, painting almost exclusively the surrounding mesas, mountains and barrancas. Their angular, yet fluid shapes created endless subjects for Wells. For instance, Mountains from 1934 is not a linear representation of the local landscape, but a study on the essence of light and shadow. A subtle balance is created between the heaviness of the black lines that make up the unspecified blue-gray mountains and the whitish paper that makes up the sky, left without pigment except for two straight lines that suggest the slightest tufts of clouds.
But it wasn’t just the landscape that drew Wells to the area. Wells, like many, has struggled all her life with his homosexuality. In fact, it was his family’s distress over Wells’ sexuality that sent him to Evans Ranch School in the first place. His father hoped that the time spent outdoors working on a ranch could help Wells “get stronger” and free his mind from wandering where his father thought he shouldn’t.
While Wells eventually came to love the bare environment, he was also likely drawn to the Southwest because communities including Taos and Santa Fe were known to accept more people with different sexual preferences than most other places in the United States. A fiercely reserved person, Wells never openly acknowledged his homosexuality. However, by reading the archived letters sent between Wells, his family and his friends, the scholars realized that those close to Wells were aware of his sexuality, while being willing to keep him a secret.
To be fair, Wells probably had reason to stay closed. Homophobia existed in Santa Fe and Taos, and homoerotic expression was generally frowned upon, but it was tolerated to some degree in part because it fueled the growing bohemian vibe that brought tourists and their money to the area. And so, unlike other places in America where the queer community has created secluded pockets where it found solace, the queer residents of Santa Fe have negotiated shared spaces. The annual Santa Fe party, which allowed for cross-dressing across the sexual spectrum and contributed to the city’s free-spirited nature, was an example of such a fusion.
This environment gave Wells some relief, as a closed gay man, from the blatant homophobia in most of the United States at the time. He has found both a muse and a refuge in the rugged, rocky landscape of the American Southwest that he has come to call home. For more information on Wells, read on Cady Wells and Southwestern Modernismedited by Lois P. Rudnick.
You can see Wells’ watercolor Mountains in the West American art galleries on the 7th floor of the Martin Building. Look for it in the works on paper drawers found in the A New Visual Language galleries.