Justin Wells: This Week’s Featured MCA Artist Etched His Way Into His Work

A showcase series of MCA student artists and their work in the final year of Memphis College of Art

Starting this week, StoryBoard is honoring the Memphis College of Art (MCA) in its final year by revisiting last year’s print-only series of featured work of MCA’s students. This week, we look into the graphic design world of MCA student Justin Wells, who swept the Student Awards at the 2019 American Advertising Federation (AAF) Memphis ADDY awards with his rebranding project for Goner Records. 

Justin works primarily with digital design tools, including Adobe Illustrator, but learned his craft using an old-school sketch tool that will be familiar to kids of all ages.

StoryBoard: How long have you been practicing your artwork?

Justin Wells: I’ve been drawing since I was a kid. I was given an etch-a-sketch when I was little and for a while it was my best friend. I knew I wanted to be an artist growing up but I didn’t settle into design until I got into college.

Have you always worked in the digital realm? 

My primary medium at the moment is Adobe Illustrator and it was locked behind a price barrier before I had access to it at the Memphis College of Art. When I’m not working digitally I try to go out of my way to use new materials and learn how they work. I see it as a method of presenting my work and that’s just as, if not more important.

In which medium did you get your start?

Etch-a-sketch! But I started like most people with pen and paper when I started to get serious about creating.

How young were you when you started becoming passionate about your artwork?

I think it was around middle school when I embraced the “art kid” title at my school. After that I doubled down on it and became passionate about what I was doing.

Describe how your artwork, in your youth, made you feel?

It was much more freeing than it is now. There wasn’t pressure to be new, original or outstanding. I could make something for the sake of being cool so I did just that.

Did you have encouragement from friends and family?

Absolutely. I’ve been blessed with a great family, but my Mother and Grandmother stand out especially as supportive and inspirational when it comes to my art. One time when I was young I finished a drawing and should it to my mom. She looked at it and said “It’s ok, but you can do better.” After that moment I started taking that approach to most things I do now. 

How would you describe your “eye” when you work? Are you intuitive in your work, or do you have a specific technique in mind? 

I look at a lot of my art as a problem to be solved. I ask myself “How to I solve this? how do I get this idea across? Is that best done through color or texture?” and etc. After that I get a one or four cups of coffee ready and try to knock out as much of it as I can. After that I take a break for a day or two and take another crack at it until I feel its finished. I think when it comes to technique you just need to know your tools and research them before hand, then you just fall into your most efficient pattern.

How does your work speak to you?  What do you feel you are communicating with your work?

It depends who the client is. It’s easier to express an idea when someone has a concrete, unfaltering message they want to get across. If the work is personal then my message might change throughout. Its a lot like the way I talk unchecked. My art will ramble on and change meaning as it develops. 

Is there a Memphis “style?”  If so (or if not), how would you describe it? 

I wanna be a smartass and say Yes, a bunch of Italian architects in the 80’s created the style through the Memphis Group, but that hardly applies to the city. I think it’s more about tone when it comes to us. There is no single visual style that can encapsulate all of Memphis. Instead you have to capture that heart of the city, and the fact that it refuses to stop moving forward. A handmade, bootstrap feeling from the city that’s constantly the underdog when compared to its contemporaries.

Where and how can your work be found, or purchased?  

I have an instagram @ohwelp_design and I’m in the process of putting together my website. 

What advice do you have for art students?

Never stop making art, but find another creative outlet. What I’ve noticed is a lot of new artists who look at this as a career will overwork themselves and feel the stress twicefold because their stress reliever (art) becomes their stressor. Take a moment to relax, cook, write or something. You can never have too many outlets.  <>

Memphis College of Art is in its final year serving the arts. A Memphis institution since 1936, it has been an iconic occupant of Overton Park’s Rust Hall since 1959.

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