John Wells is a most unconventional art collector. He runs a manufacturing company, Wells Johnson Medical Supplies; is an accountant, and by his own admission, doesn't know much about art.
But he knows what he likes, and he particularly likes the process of making art.
He calls it "the artist's dandruff." The tools they use, the messes they make, and, especially, the mistakes.
He loves it so much and has collected it in such quantity, that he has his own museum on Tucson's far southeast side. He calls it the Process Museum. It contains thousands of pieces of art he's either bought or has been gifted by artists. And he's decided to open it to the public.
On the north side of Wells' 77,000-square-foot building - the former Anaconda Copper headquarters here - is a small sign in a window that says "Wells Johnson." A door leads directly into a large warehouse/manufacturing area; offices are beyond. The warehouse and office space take up about 20,000-square-feet on the west side of the building.
On the north side is a tall abstract sculpture that says "Process." It is rusted and has scars on the cold rolled steel. Large double glass doors lead into the lobby of Wells' Process Museum. The galleries are all on the east end of the sprawling building, taking up the remaining 57,000-square-feet.
The plethora of art - Wells doesn't know exactly how many pieces - represents the work of about 120 artists. It contains accomplished, finished works by such artists as Chris Rush, Joanne Kerrihard and the late Eriks Rudans; paintbrushes; palates; squeezed, half-empty tubes of paints; paintings that have gone terribly wrong; art Wells has convinced an artist to give to him rather than throw away, and the complete replica of the studio and office of one artist, the late Owen Williams, a longtime friend of Wells.
He even has about 700 small paintings he calls "the Arroyo Project." He discovered them in an arroyo behind an artist's house - they were works destined for the dump. He convinced the artist to give them to his museum instead, and when they were delivered they were covered with cobwebs, dirt and spiders. Wells cleaned each one meticulously.
He first fell in love with art as a teenager when he visited the Phoenix Art Museum and saw an over-sized painting, "Children Playing With Fire," by the great Mexican artist Rufino Tamayo.
"I didn't know Tamayo from Adam," he says, sitting in the art-filled board room on the business side of the building. Still, Wells, now 70, was hooked: he went to a gallery, plopped down about $65, and bought a Tamayo print.
Though he's collected most of his adult life, he came to an epiphany about art a decade ago.
"I realized process was the most interesting," he says. He started collecting with an eye toward gathering the artist's mistakes, detritus and final works.
"I'm not interested in how to make art or teaching anyone," says Wells.
"I'm interested in the shifting thoughts of the artist as he's doing work."
He stops for a moment to collect his thoughts.
"The collection is in part a conversation; but it's really a demonstration," he says.
"It's physically seeing ideas as tangible things. They reveal the truth about the making of art, which is a big mess, and out of that good happens. I think people should know that."
In spaces where there used to be dreary offices off long hallways, Wells has made galleries, each devoted to an artist or a theme. The hallways, too, are dripping with art.
He guides a guest through this massive museum and tells a story about each piece.
He points out the large wooden planks with drips and streaks of paint that artist Sean-Paul Pluguez used in his studio as tables. The John Davis sculpture of a straight-back chair with a coat hanging over the back of it seems to float in the air thanks to its attachment to a wall in the lobby.
There are two palates gifted to Wells from Kerrihard, who generally shows her work through Tucson's Davis Dominguez Gallery. They are small, framed window glass. She uses one as a palate until it is filled with dabs of her paints, tube caps and empty tubes. The two hanging near her works at the Process Museum were made several years apart, and you can see the change in her color palate.
His collection of Kerrihard art begins with stark works from her graduate school days. Wells has 17 of the 18 pieces she produced for her master's thesis at the University of Arizona. They are canvases covered with white gauche paint with thin black figures penciled on to them.
"She was afraid to use color," says Wells. "For three years she used white paint. The drawings were almost secondary. I just think that is fascinating."
Walk along the hallway and you see how Kerrihard's work has matured. Then Wells stops at a painting that appears to be an abstract battle. Shapes and colors hide behind deep, dark lines. It looks as though they are trying to break out of a prison.
"The reason I bought it was because she had failed at it," says Wells, remembering Kerrihard's disbelief at his wanting the painting.
After that piece, Kerrihard's works on the walls break open with color and dreamy abstract images rich with circles, lines and a sort of joy.
In one hallway, Wells provides a glimpse into Kerrihard's evolution as an artist, and it's breathtaking.
"I'm a very process painter, and I think that's one reason we've stayed together so long," says Kerrihard in a phone interview from her Tucson studio. She and Wells first met in the 1990s. She showed her work at Dinnerware and he bought it.
"He wants to see mistakes, processes, the things that didn't work. That's the life of an artist - it's the process of doing bad art. That he loves that is wonderful and it's motivating."
Wells has collected the work of Owen Williams with even more intensity. When the artist died, Wells bought out his studio and office, which contained many pieces that were going to be destroyed by Williams' estate.
"I would visit Owen and watch him organize and work," recalls Wells. "I asked him to save things."
There are the very early, rudimentary drawings that Williams - who became a dentist but continued to make art - made as a child; a rubber foot he studied because he had such trouble drawing feet; a Prince Albert tobacco can that shows up in a painting; tiny sculptures he made out of fillings; his notes, paints, paintbrushes, and dental tools.
Williams often turned to old tools to make his art.
Wells even has a couple of Williams' gaudy Hawaiian shirts.
Turn a corner and you run into Rudans' massive black wood sculpture of a bull, along with several paintings depicting the animal in various situations. Wells explains that Rudans once told him that the bull haunted him. He made the paintings to stop the haunting. It didn't work. But once he made the oversized, out-of-proportion sculpture, the haunting ceased, says Wells. Rudans' time with the bull was at an end.
There is a gallery with works by women - he calls it the "Women's Room"; another with work by men - "Men's Room"; and still another with works that seemed to be inspired by deities. He calls that "God's Room."
Another, called the popular abbreviation of an expletive phrase, contains art he just can't figure out. "I buy works that I hope some day I'll get," says Wells.
Several rooms have been turned over to artists for studios. Currently, three artists are provided space.
There's no charge, but sometimes Wells will sit in a corner and quietly watch the art being created. His love of art is such that he wants to see it, from the very beginning to its very end.
Sean-Paul Pluguez is one of the artists that Wells collects, and one of the three that Wells has donated studio space to for as long as the artists wants.
The 31-year-old splits his time between the Old Pueblo and New York City, where he also has a studio.
When he met Wells in 2004 in New York, he was concentrating on sculpture. A mutual friend suggested Pluguez try painting. He was hesitant at first, but Wells' encouragement pushed him on.
"He believes that I'm courageous and he completely believes that what I produce is innovative and edgy," says Pluguez. "That to me is very important to keep going. I'm so appreciative of his encouragement to me as an artist."
Sometimes, Wells will quietly come into the studio and watch as Pluguez works. He studies every move, every decision, every brush stroke.
"I trust him," says the young artist. "Because I trust him, it's not a negative thing that he's there. … It's as though he becomes a part of the work - it's really strange. I've never, ever felt as though he had to leave."
As for Wells' gathering those mistakes Pluguez makes, the artist has made peace with that.
"In New York, I tore up one painting of mine and threw it in the garbage," said Pluguez.
"When I returned to Tucson, I found he had picked up every single piece, including the cheap frame. At first I said 'This is crazy.' I didn't even want to see it again.
"Then I thought 'I don't get along with the piece, but he gets along with it.' There will always be a weird tension between me and that work. But I'm OK with that now."
Chris Rush, however, is not OK with anyone, including Wells, gathering up his mistakes. Wells has about 35 of the Tucson artist's haunting works, most quirky, almost surreal portraits, as well as a few of Rush's drawings on found paper (a few years back, Rush featured similar drawings in the windows along the south side of the Hotel Congress).
"I will not allow him to take the terrible failures that I want hidden," says Rush, speaking from Ashland, Ore., where his is living while writing a memoir.
"I still have some notion of privacy."
Yet, there's something about Wells' process of collecting that speaks to Rush.
"John is one of the most lively collectors I've ever met," says the artist, who is planning a show next year at Etherton Gallery in downtown Tucson.
"Some collectors have no interest in knowing the artist. It's as if the artist's fingerprints sully the work, and they want the artist separated from it. John is really interested in research, methodology, sketches. John wants to know everything. He wants to see what the boundaries of art really are."
It might not be everyone's cup of tea, admits Rush.
"His collection is extremely bizarre in that it's very pantheistic," says Rush.
"John wants to believe, and he would rather risk in believing in too much than too little. He has included a mountain of peculiar material - the nature of John's inquiry is quite cosmic. I think he is looking for meaning. He is relentlessly curious. The search for meaning in art is never ending."
Public can view private collection
Until about six years ago, John Wells considered his collection private.
But then he decided to let others see it and made it a museum.
Still, he was private about the Process Museum, just showing it to friends, acquaintances and people who happen to discover it. Until now.
"I'm a little nervous," he said with a laugh, when asked about whether or not he was prepared for a wealth of art lovers who want to visit the collection.
But he wants people to see the art. We asked him how he'll do it:
So, are you just going to throw open the doors open?
Not exactly, said Wells.
"We'll set up reservation times, and guide groups anywhere from five to 20 people. Demand will depend on whether we do one a week or five a week."
At this point, you have no employees for the museum, and you've conducted the tours. Will that change?
"We may get docents to do the tours. It depends on the interest."
Currently, you have a show in a separate space on the grounds - what used to be Anaconda Mining's executive suite. The show, "Unibiquiti," includes art that becomes enhanced with 3-D glasses (which you have for viewers), and works that change their essence depending on how the viewer looks at them. Is that open to the public and how can that be seen?
"Yes, it's up until April 30. It will work the same way as the museum - with reservations."
You plan about four shows in that space a year? Can those be seen by the public?
"Yes, four shows and they will open to members of the public who make reservations."
So, how can reservations be made?
Where is the museum and what is the charge.
It's at 8000 S. Kolb Road at Interstate 10. There's no charge.
Art should be part of life, says local business boss
John Wells, who earned his degree in finance from Arizona State University, did all his work to get his MBA. Then he became disenchanted with academia. So he never turned in his thesis, he says.
He was an investor in Wells Johnson when it opened in 1986, and eventually took it over. The company, which has 24 employees, makes medical supplies such as aspirators, syringes, tables and other equipment for the operating room.
While the operation is separate from the museum, they share the same building, and art spills over into the business offices: Employees get to pick their favorite pieces for their work spaces. Sometimes they change it out, sometimes they bring in their own favorite art pieces for the walls.
Wells doesn't care how art works its way into people's lives; he just thinks it should.
"Art is just a natural part of any society and efforts to set it aside or partition it away from cultures are errors and destructive to all of us," he says.
"There's nothing special about art; it's just something we should be living with."
Underlying principles of Process Museum
• The artist is the primary focus and is given center stage.
• The final art piece, while important, may not be any more important than the steps to get there. The collection is an effort to capture the steps.
• The artist is no more likely to create a masterpiece than we are to create perfection, so the failures should be acknowledged and appreciated.
Contact reporter Kathleen Allen at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-4128.