Most nice Charleston girls were not dissecting corpses and drawing from nude models in 1892. They were busy preparing to lead lives filled with babies and needlework. Sabina Elliott Wells was different.
Wells had a scientific bent and expected to earn her own living. She moved to New York City at age 16 and signed up for courses at the Medical College for Women. She also enrolled at the Art Students League, where she studied modeling under Augustus Saint-Gaudens. In one of those odd coincidences of history that seem too strange to be true, Saint-Gaudens was then working on his soon-to-be famous sculpture of Col. Robert Gould Shaw leading black soldiers into battle against the Confederates on Morris Island, just across Charleston Harbor from Wells’ childhood home.
Wells fell ill around 1896 and returned to Charleston. She tried selling designs and illustrations to New York publishers long-distance, but they preferred to work with artists closer at hand. “I can’t teach well,” she concluded after several stints in the classroom. “I won’t teach badly.” In 1901 she entered a contest to design a souvenir booklet for the South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition, submitting an illustrated edition of The Cotton Boll by the beloved South Carolina poet Henry Timrod. She won.
The Wells family fell on hard times. In 1902 Wells wrote to Ellsworth Woodward at Sophie Newcomb College in New Orleans, which was training women to decorate pottery in its own distinctive version of the Arts and Crafts style. She enclosed a copy of The Cotton Boll. Woodward was impressed: He said her work showed unusual talent, experience and skill. Newcomb Pottery, the school’s for-profit partner, could surely help her reach “the right market.” Woodward promised artistic freedom and claimed that his students were making as much as $150 a month.
Wells hoped to learn the craft and set up her own pottery studio elsewhere, perhaps in Charleston. Woodward explained that she should plan to continue living in New Orleans. It would be far too expensive to buy so much equipment, and Newcomb Pottery employed a team of men to throw its vases, plates, pitchers, bowls, biscuit jars and humidors. Women decorated the blanks using their own designs, but the men glazed and fired them. Students whose work passed muster were allowed to sell it as Newcomb Pottery and keep the profits, minus the cost of the ware and other supplies.
Wells showed an immediate gift for twining fronds, petals, claws and fins around three-dimensional forms. She carved repeating designs in low relief, from blue crabs and shrimp to water lilies and cactus. As the late 19th-century hunger for art nouveau curves began to give way to the modernistic geometry of art deco, her embellishments grew more abstract. But, she was soon frustrated by the school’s insistence that she follow strict guidelines on style. And no matter how hard she worked, she could not seem to take home more than $40 a month. Wells stayed at Newcomb for two years and then moved on, eventually returning to Charleston. She never married. Her niece, Anna Wells Rutledge, became a noted art historian and worked to make sure that Wells’ legacy would be preserved.
Sabina Wells was a master craftsman who found her calling through an important (if paternalistic) social and aesthetic movement in the decorative arts. Her work now sells at auction for thousands of dollars.
Susan Millar Williams is the author, with Stephen G. Hoffius, of Upheaval in Charleston: Earthquake and Murder on the Eve of Jim Crow.