Sylvester Wells is first and foremost a man of God. He says he was called to serve the Lord in 1960 and has been a preacher ever since. His artistic work, therefore, can only understood as part of his service to God. As he says, “You can’t put God on the sidelines. You must do everything to the glory of God.”
He was born in Jacksonville, Florida, the middle child of ten. His father was a truck driver at the shipyard and his mother took care of the home and family. While he wasn’t raised in the church, his parents knew what was right and wrong, and worked hard to keep their children out of trouble. High moral standards directed them to all be good citizens.
As a child, Sylvester liked to draw. Although no one in his family was artistic, he spent his time drawing beginning at the age of six. God gave him the gift, he explains, and it was his job to cultivate it. On his own, he developed skills in portraiture and sign painting.
After finishing high school in Jacksonville, he joined the US Army and was stationed in France. Once his service was completed, he returned home to his wife, Consuelo in Cocoa, Florida.
One day when he was 25, he was walking on the main street in Cocoa trying to figure out what he could do to make a living. He saw Alfred Hair hauling a stack of landscape paintings into a bank to sell. He admired the artwork and struck up a conversation with Hair. Sylvester asked Alfred if painting was the only thing he did for a living. Alfred replied affirmatively and added, “That’s why I’m driving a pink Cadillac.” (The car was parked on the street.) As Sylvester studied the paintings, the Lord told him he could do what Alfred was doing. Sylvester understood that painting landscapes would be his job. He knew he could paint portraits as he had been doing that for a long time. He also knew he could make signs. Now he would learn to paint landscapes. As he was good at copying, he tried to memorize Alfred’s paintings.
He went home and told his wife, Consuelo, “I’m going to paint for a living.” She looked at him strangely. This revelation didn’t make sense to her, but she trusted her husband and supported him.
Sylvester set out a canvas and tried to paint one of Alfred’s moonlight scenes. It was harder to imitate than he thought. His first try at a landscape turned out looking like a three-year-old had painted it and he nearly cried in defeat.
He knew he needed to find someone to teach him. Sylvester heard there was an artist named Harold Newton painting landscapes in Cocoa, so he “put out the word” that he wanted to talk to him. Harold heard that Sylvester was looking for him and he was curious to find out what this preacher wanted with him. They finally met and Harold told him he could watch him paint.
Sylvester watched Harold work during the day. At night he went home and practice what he’d seen. He then began watching Sam Newton paint. After awhile, he spent more time with Sam than Harold. “I just stood and watched,” he explained. He purchased the same materials Harold and Sam used and continued to experiment. “I practiced and practiced and practiced,” he said. “Soon, I could paint anything Sam could paint and people started buying.”
Sylvester’s best critics were his own customers. They would offer helpful suggestions, which Sylvester took to heart, making him a better painter. He also learned from his good friend Robert Lewis, another painter who lived in Cocoa.
Like the other Highwaymen, he took his paintings on the road, selling up and down the highways on the east coast of Florida, for over forty years. Even today, he says he has 100 paintings ready to sell.
But painting isn’t the most important part of his life. Preaching the gospel is his primary mission. He didn’t study in a Bible school until he was 72. He mostly learned by listening and reading the Bible. Although he doesn’t have a church, he is a Seventh Day Adventist. But, he explains, it doesn’t really matter what religion you are. What’s most important is how you live your life. He notes how dangerous and distressed the world is right now. Everything that has happened, he says, has been forecast in the books of Daniel and Revelation. “We are in the last Kingdom,” Sylvester warns, “Christ will set the world right.”
Consuelo died after twenty years of marriage. He and his second wife, Clezell, were married for fifteen years. She passed away a few years ago. Both wives have helped him with art show exhibitions and were good partners. There were no children from either marriage.
After living in Atlanta for a short time, Sylvester moved to Tennessee because he said the Bible instructed him to do so. He’s now living with a sister in Alabama. Wells no longer paints, as he is blind from glaucoma. He prays every day that God will heal his blindness so that he can paint once again. He asks that others pray for him as well.
Sylvester Wells never saw Alfred Hair again after that first meeting at the bank in Cocoa. And, he says, he’s never been to Fort Pierce.
Sylvester Wells has painted portraits of all the Highwaymen on one canvas. They are extraordinary likenesses. His landscapes are made with sweeping strokes of color, which elicit an emotional appeal. The compositions are traditional Highwaymen scenes with windblown palm trees and rolling oceans. He can be fearless with color, creating skies of deep oranges, pinks, and reds that are often reflected in the waterways. Because he has the ability to paint figures and buildings, he sometimes creates scenes from everyday life. Trusting in God’s message that he had a talent that should be developed, he made his living through art.