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The Big 5

Joyce Wellman ( 2005 )

On View

Painting with red background and red and purple abstract shapes and black and white lines
  • Location House (1600) - Display, Gallery E
  • Materials Acrylic and mixed media on canvas
  • Object Number 2022.010.0001
  • Dimensions 72 in x 60 in; 182.88 cm x 152.4 cm
  • Credit Line Gift of the artist, 2022

Joyce Wellman’s body of work offers a complex visual system of coded messages interlaced with hidden signs, sacred symbols, whispers, and dreams. In The Big 5, Wellman applies her signature expressive abstraction to what she often calls her “number works.” A lover of numbers, geometric shapes, and the mysteries that they hold, Wellman uses them to access personal memories and represent her musings about the complexities of human interaction. The Big 5 features a pentagon, which for Wellman symbolizes humankind and cognition, and it takes on an almost anthropomorphic sensibility in the painting. Other meaningful symbols include the vesica piscis—often symbolizing the intersection between the physical and spiritual world—and an Archimedean spiral. 

Wellman’s primary inspiration comes through her mother, Hattie Wellman—a dreamer, mystic, and diviner of numbers—who left a powerful inheritance to her daughter. Hattie and her friends participated in the popular numbers or “policy” gambling game that was a widespread cultural phenomenon in urban centers from the early 20th century through the 1970s. In many ways, it was a source of social and economic empowerment for disenfranchised Black communities.

 Wellman recalls that her mother’s system for playing her numbers was often based on an eclectic combination of dreams, personal histories, books, and intuition. Hattie’s “figurings” and “decipherings” were a way of life for her and her Brooklyn, New York, family, and they indelibly shaped Joyce’s consciousness. “The playing of numbers represents for me remembrances of a time and place, my mother, the universal character of humans to gamble on hunches, and ultimately a history of women in mathematics,” the artist affirms. Hattie’s numbers notebooks and reveries remain vibrant in Wellman’s practice, and they continue to ebb, flow, and punctuate the artist’s powerful paintings. What began in her family culture has developed into a lifelong artistic practice in which coded messages are the overarching metaphor for Wellman’s worldview. 

Text by Adrienne L. Childs as part of the Seeing U.S. Research Project