Visual artist Jill Wells' AXA mentorship program uplifts underserved artists in Des Moines

Innovative mentorship program led by local artist culminates in community works of art.

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A love of art, community and partnerships is evident in visual artist Jill Wells’ career and the vivid and towering murals she creates. It’s also evident in the mentorship program she founded for Des Moines high schoolers.

Wells, a 2005 Drake University graduate and award-winning artist, created the Artist X Advocacy (AXA mentorship program), leveraging a grant and partnerships. The program offers a paid mentorship to underserved 11th and 12th graders attending Des Moines metro area high schools, and it comes with guidance and interactions with Wells and her collaborators.

“As an Iowa-based artist, I founded the AXA mentorship program to be the change I wanted to see in our world, to work with youth who are pursuing arts and advocacy fields of work, and to be able to pay them for their work," she said.

Visual artist Jill Wells. Photo courtesy of Wells.

Wells is the talent behind many highly visible murals and art projects in Iowa and elsewhere. She created the ‘Future’ mural, visible south of 6th and University avenues in Des Moines. Located on the north side of the Evelyn K. Davis Center for Working Families, the vibrant mural honors late community leaders and depicts towering Black figures. It features themes of home ownership, graduation, working families, the importance of setting goals to accomplish one’s dreams and more.

In Iowa City, Wells served as the lead painter for the towering Oracles of Iowa City, which features pro-Black messages: "Black Joy Needs No Permission" and "Weaponize Your Privilege to Save Black Bodies."

Wells thrives on sharing her gifts with students.

"Working with the AXA mentees provides fresh perspectives, inspiration, and knowledge of how others see the world, and that means a great deal to me. AXA is about collaboration, community engagement and cultivating thriving creative communities," she said.

In the first year of the program, Wells and mentee, Ava Palmer, a freshman at Drake University, developed a public art piece for Des Moines’ skywalk system. Wells' newest mentees are Jack Marren, 21, who graduated from Johnston High School, and Sabah Koko, 17, a senior, who attends North High School. Both will work with Wells to design a public mural on an interior wall at Mainframe Studios that will be displayed through January 2023.

"Future" mural by visual artists Jill Wells and Marissa Hernandez. Photo courtesy of Wells.

The paid mentorship program offers several key benefits that Wells, a former residential substance abuse counselor for five years and a juvenile services counselor for three years, deems crucial.

  • Weekly one-one-one sessions with Wells
  • Mentee stipend
  • Community workshops and field trips
  • Series of community engagement workshops to build mentees' professional connections
  • Space at Mainframe Studios
  • Meetings with community leaders, movement makers, advocates and creatives
  • Resume/portfolio development
  • Professional documentation via photo shoot, podcast and radio interviews
  • Creation an original public work of art/art performance
  • Public art exhibition

Students praised the program.

"AXA mentorship is helping me gain experience as a professional artist and explore new ideas and skills: also, learn to manage a budget, expenses and learn how to collaborate with other artists and clients,” said Marren, an advocate for disability rights.

Koko agreed. She said the program allows her "to talk about my artwork and learn more about the career and business of being an artist." Post-graduation, Koko will be working out of AXA Studio 447 at Mainframe on a mural project and growing her own private practice.

Artwork by Sabah Koko, 17, will be in an exhibit at the Des Moines Art Center in May. Image courtesy of Koko.

Skywalk Activation Project “I AM”

Wells said she and Palmer completed a workshop with three clients, a teacher and a program director from Iowa Department for the Blind. The project culminated in an interactive public work of art called: “I AM,” which focused on themes of empowerment. Each canvas has “I AM” Braille quotes printed out and adhered to the surface. The project was commissioned by Operation Downtown and ArtForce Iowa.

Skywalk Activation Project workshop with the Iowa Department for the Blind. Photo courtesy of Wells.

"The “I AM” project is special to me because through art we can make spaces for those who usually lack representation. It gives people a sense of community and safety," said Palmer, in an artist statement. "Through these community works of public art, I want individuals to know that they are valued and respected."

Skywalk Activation Project "I AM." Photo courtesy of Wells.

FEEL Exhibition

The public can interact with Wells during her upcoming multimedia art exhibition "FEEL." A reception will be held at 6 p.m.-8 p.m. on May 7 at Plymouth Gallery in Des Moines. The exhibition runs from May 7-July 3.

"Drawing on the powerful legislation of The Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, Wells presents FEEL, to raise questions about history, access, transformation, freedom, sensory input, light and dark, and above all highlights the absence or marginalization of communities who have long been denied representation within arts realms. Featuring approximately forty to fifty 2D and 3D artworks, the exhibition is interactive, with sound, touch, Braille, LED lighting, and visuals."

Listen to an audio of description of the event: Audio.

Top Banner: Photos courtesy of the artists.

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