If you’re ever in Pilgrim Framing admiring Stephen Wells’s paintings, be warned — the artist, who operates the shop out of his Old Firehouse Road home in North Truro, might ask you which is your least favorite. “I definitely feel like I’ve conquered my fear of criticism,” he says. At 34, he’s letting go of the need for perfection.
Growing up in Truro, in the house he and his wife recently bought from his father, Wells always felt surrounded by a community of artists. Whether he’s painting en plein air, making white-line prints, or framing art, Wells says his work “feels like carrying on a legacy.”
He opened Pilgrim Framing in 2013. The space used to be his father’s boat shop, and he still sometimes finds scraps of wood when he’s cleaning. Back in 2013, “I was trying to be an artist, but I didn’t have a good idea of what it would actually take,” Wells admits. But running a business catering to the needs of painters and art buyers helped him find inspiration.
“Being exposed to so many people through the community and through the frame shop has been wildly influential on my work,” he says. Through the business, he met and studied with artists at the Cape School of Art in Provincetown, including John Clayton. “The influences here run really deep from the original artist colony,” he says. “These techniques have been passed down.”
While he’s carrying on the legacy of white-line printmaking — also known as Provincetown printmaking, pioneered around 1915 — Wells is putting his own twist on it. “I like to find the traditional ways of making art and gain competence in that, and then find more modern ways to do it,” he says. “Usually, my work ends up somewhere in the middle.”
Traditionally, Provincetown printmakers carve a design into a block of wood with a knife. The grooves become the signature “white lines” between design elements. Unlike Japanese printmaking, which uses multiple wood blocks, Provincetown prints use only one. This means that all the sections that contain a certain color are painted and pressed before the artist moves on to the next. No two prints can be exactly alike.
After Wells and his wife, Jennifer, added a laser engraver to the arsenal of tools at their home studio, he decided to try using it instead of a knife. “Some people told me I was cheating,” he says. “It’s cutting a corner, for sure.” Today, he designs the blocks in Adobe Illustrator before laser-engraving them.
Wells used this process to create a series of bird prints that he displayed last June in Provincetown’s Spiritus Pizza. Wells collaborated with Provincetown musician and woodcarver Rob Scott, who whittled birds to match each of the 12 prints. “I give Spiritus a lot of credit in the community for providing opportunities for young artists,” he says.
Aside from printmaking, Wells’s most frequently practiced medium is oil painting. “I’ve always had trouble sticking to one thing,” he says, “but the beauty of it is every painting is a totally different scene.
“When I’m painting, I’m not trying to paint like a photograph. I just want to catch the mood or vibe,” says Wells. “It puts great energy into the work, because you’re so in the moment and present when you’re doing it.”
Most recently, Wells has been working on a series of 3-by-5-inch paintings of antique keys. He sources these metal models from antiques enthusiast friends who comb the Wellfleet Flea Market for treasures. He paints the keys against brightly colored backdrops that accentuate hues in the metal, lending the pictures a pop-art flair. He doesn’t patinate or polish them — every key is pictured as it was when found.
This summer, you might find that series at Studio Provincetown, the art shack that the Wellses rented on MacMillan Pier this past September and October. Both had work on display: from Stephen, paintings; from Jennifer, laser-engraved glasses, charcuterie boards, and travel mugs. They’re planning to rent the shack for the full upcoming season.
Still early in his career, Wells is a fastidious learner. “I never want to be satisfied with my work,” he says. “The sky’s the limit.”