The dramatic landscape of the southwestern United States has played the muse for many artists over centuries. Evidence of this can be seen from the ancient pictographs and petroglyphs throughout the area all the way to the various artist communes that continue to call places like Sedona, Taos, and Santa Fe home. For many artists, the draw is the light, which lays bare the beauty of the landscape in a way that isn’t replicated in other environs.
Certainly, this was the case for 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 much of the rest of his life in the American Southwest, primarily in the Santa Fe area, painting almost exclusively the surrounding mesas, mountains, and barrancas. Their angular, yet fluid, forms created endless subjects for Wells. For example, Mountains from 1934 is not a straightforward depiction of the local landscape, but a study in the essence of light and shadow. A fine balance is made between the weightiness of the black lines making up the unspecified blue-gray mountains and the off-white paper making up the sky, left absent of pigment except for two straight lines suggesting the slightest wisps of clouds.
But it was not only the landscape that drew Wells to the area. Wells, like many, struggled throughout his life with his homosexuality. Indeed, it was his family’s discomfort with Wells’ sexuality that sent him to the Evans Ranch School in the first place. His father hoped the time spent outdoors working at a ranch might help Wells “toughen up” and clear his mind from wandering where his father thought it shouldn’t.
While Wells eventually came to love the sparse environment, he was also probably drawn to the Southwest because communities including Taos and Santa Fe were known to be more accepting of people with diverse sexual preferences than most other places in the United States. A fiercely private person, Wells never openly acknowledged his homosexuality. However, reading through the archived letters sent between Wells and his family and friends, scholars have come to realize that those close to Wells were aware of his sexuality, while willing to keep his secret.
To be fair, Wells likely had reason to stay closeted.Homophobia did exist in Santa Fe and Taos, and outright homoerotic expression was generally frowned upon, but was tolerated to a degree partly because it fed the growing bohemian atmosphere that brought tourists and their money to the area. And so, unlike other places in America where the queer community fashioned isolated pockets where they found solace, queer Santa Fe residents negotiated shared spaces. The Santa Fe annual fiesta, which allowed for cross-dressing across the sexual spectrum and contributed to the free-spirited nature of the town, was one example of such melding.
This environment gave Wells a degree of relief, as a closeted gay man, from the blatant homophobia in most of the United States at the time. He found both a muse and refuge in the rough and rocky landscape of the American Southwest he came to call home. For more information on Wells, read Cady Wells and Southwestern Modernism, edited by Lois P. Rudnick.
You can see Wells’ watercolor Mountains in the Western American Art galleries on the 7th floor of the Martin Building. Look for it in the works on paper drawers located in the A New Visual Language galleries.