To this artist, trash is beautiful

  • by Michael Jortner
  • Tuesday October 30, 2018
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"1200 Block Powell Street #1," watercolor and gouache (2017) by Timothy Wells. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Jack Fischer Gallery
"1200 Block Powell Street #1," watercolor and gouache (2017) by Timothy Wells. Photo: Courtesy the artist and Jack Fischer Gallery

When you take in watercolorist Timothy Wells' new solo show "SF Made in China" at the Jack Fischer Gallery in Potrero Flats and feel the urge to remove his paintings from the wall only to toss them into your recycling bin, Wells may just break into a smile.

A longtime San Francisco resident and an openly gay, self-taught painter, Wells, 57, has lived on the Nob Hill-Chinatown border near Powell and Clay Streets for over 25 years. After stepping over cardboard remnants found on the streets outside his apartment for quite some time, Wells had an epiphany. "It occurred to me how beautiful they are," he said. "They just happened to be incredibly captivating pieces of accidental design."

He must have been onto something, because "SF Made in China," consisting of "15 or so" painstakingly realized watercolors, according to gallery owner Jack Fischer, opens this Saturday. What does Fischer see in Wells' work? "I like trash," he replied.

The show's title reflects two aspects. One, "found material that has been produced in China," Wells said, yet "I'm creating the work in San Francisco." Second, it's the title of one of his paintings, his representation of the panel of an everyday cardboard box featuring perhaps the most ubiquitous term in our turbocharged consumer culture: "Made in China," with the initials of our fair city printed above it.

The dimensions of each watercolor are substantial, approximately 22 inches by 30 inches. Wells says they are "close to 100% actual size."

San Francisco self-taught painter Timothy Wells. Photo: Andre Rispler  

With so much trash in his neighborhood to choose from, how does Wells decide which objects to paint and which ones to leave alone? "It just has to appeal to some part of my innate design sense," he said. "Some have it, and some don't."

One piece that does have it is "1100 Block Powell Street." Wells captures the torn edges, dark smudges, delicate curlicues of fraying cardboard and Chinese characters from a Nissin Foods ramen box so realistically I wonder if I'm looking at a photograph. But don't mention photorealism to Wells. "These are very definitely paintings. And nobody would mistake these for the illusion of a photograph."

"You look at the shape," he said, "at the accidental graphic design because of the shape." Somehow I'm reminded of the serif version of the Hebrew alphabet character "Hei." Once I make this connection I feel oddly comforted. In the piece I find something familiar.

Wells insists his show is not intended for any type of art customer in particular. But acknowledging how San Francisco rests on the Pacific Rim and boasts a thriving Chinatown, Wells imagines "people who are familiar with the West Coast, how we are positioned geopolitically, will find this work speaking to their interests and that kind of crossover of cultures."

Have a spiritual bent? You might get a feeling of tranquility from Wells' work. "Many people have asked me if I am a Buddhist or if this work is intentionally done with Buddhist concepts in mind." He said they are not, but acknowledges that people "will find them to be very relaxing pieces to look at."

Okay, so what about meaning? Are the works imbued with any? Wells uttered an emphatic "No." "Except," he continued, "that even ordinary objects can have a beauty and life of their own."

"SF Made In China" runs Nov. 3-Dec. 22 at Jack Fischer Gallery, 311 Potrero Ave., SF. Reception on Nov. 3, 4-6 p.m. Works range from $3,000-$16,000, and can be previewed at
For more about the artist, visit