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Art Creating History

Betty Wells '48 turned flair for illustration into a lifelong career

Posted 11.01.10 by mica communications


"I knew I was interested in illustration as a young girl, but I knew I loved fine arts, so that's why I went through the fine arts program at MICA," 83-year old Betty Wells recalled about her time at the College, more than 60 years ago. Having received a scholarship to MICA, Wells quickly put her talent to work. "In order to pay for my art supplies I would do fashion illustrations after school," she said. New York fashion buyers and companies, such as The May Company, hired Wells to sketch dresses, shoes, pocketbooks, and even fur coats. Wells continued freelance fashion illustration after graduating from MICA in 1948, using the money to help support her family as her husband, George, set up his medical practice.

But fashion illustration was only one leg of Wells' artistic journey. "My fine arts background gave me the knowledge and the ability to do all these different things," she said. She next set her sights on creating murals and other small projects, such as designing Christmas cards. It was, in fact, a Christmas card that led to the next stage of Wells' career. When a reporter asked former Baltimore Mayor William Donald Schaefer if he knew any artists who could sketch the courtroom proceedings of the H. Rap Brown triaBetty Wells, drawing of Senator Paul Sarbanesl, he replied, "Why don't you call Betty Wells? She designs my Christmas cards every year."

Her work as a fashion illustrator trained Wells to sketch fast, and "MICA gave me a wonderful background in figure sketching and anatomy," she said. Thse skills served her well as she spent the next few decades working for such news organizations as Baltimre's WBAL, Washington's WTOP, Washington Post, Baltimore Sun, and NBC News. "Before C-SPAN [existed], I spent five years sketching Congress." she said.

Her attention to detail won her two Emmy awards—one for her illustrations during a Church of Scientology investigation and the other for a Washington Odyssey one-hour special, both in 1978. Her drawings made her a legend in news and political circles, and they even caught the attention of former Supreme Court Justice Warren E. Burger. "While sketching a case in the Supreme Court, the chief justice sent his clerk over to me, saying, "Mrs. Wells, would you meet me in my chambers after court? I'd like to see what you're doing," Wells recalled. The two built up a rapport, both sharing a love of art and history. Burger laBetty Wells, drawing of Thurgood Marshallter invited her to spend a year creating about 200 sketches of life behind th scenes of the Supreme Court. Wells calls that year the most important work she has ever done and it remains at the forefront of her life today. She has created about 60 paintings from the sketches, which she is showing to provate collectors and the Library of Congress for possible acquisition. Her work is also featured in the exhibition Thirty Years of DC Courtroom Art, through Wednesday, December 1 at the Promega Fall Arts Showcase, hosted by Madison, Wisconsin-based life sciences company Promega Corp.

Having sketched sBetty Wells, drawing of Ted Kennedyuch larger-than-life figures as Senator Ted Kennedy and Justice Thurgood Marshall, as well as events, such as the D.C. sniper trials and the Panama Canal Treaty Vote in the Senate, Wells, who now livse in Virginia Beach, Virginia, has determined that it is time to start a new adventure. Once again, she is enjoying her phenomenal success. "Now I'm back into oil paintings," she said. " I did a series on orchids and rain forest gardens and a series on ballroom dancers. And I've sold every one of them."