By Joanna Bastian
Randy Lewis made an important discovery in the art world last month when Linda Melvin delivered five watercolor paintings to his art shop in Seattle: two landscapes and three still-life watercolors of ceramic plates. The early 20th century paintings and the artist, E. Wells, were unknown in the art world.
Linda had found the paintings decades ago at her Aunt Doris’ home in California. At the time of her aunt’s death, Linda was the conservator of the estate and a working mother of two children. The paintings were tucked away and moved with Linda to Seattle. Recently, she rediscovered the paintings and decided to have them framed.
Linda’s sister Susan and brother Robert pieced together the likely route of the paintings. Their father, Gordon Sanderson, worked for A.Z. Wells in Wenatchee during the 1920s and ’30s. Robert worked for A.Z.’s wife, Emogene Wells, as her personal driver. Emogene gave the paintings to Linda’s parents. When they passed away, Gordon’s sister Doris took the paintings to California, and then passed them on to Linda.
Randy Lewis’ family history is also intertwined with the Wells family.
Randy’s great-great-grandmother, Rose Marie Chus-chutl, owned 640 acres along the Columbia River near the Methow Valley. She acquired the land when Chief Moses negotiated individual land allotments for Native Americans as a compromise to the elimination of the Moses Reservation in 1878. Rose-Marie chose the location to preserve the generations of history that were carved into the landscape.
In the early 1900s, Rose Marie verbally agreed to sell 10 acres to A.Z. Unable to read, she trusted A.Z. and signed the written bill of sale. Soon thereafter, workers broke ground on 150 acres, instead of the 10 acres she had thought she sold. A.Z. erected his company town of Azwell and commercial orchards on Rose Marie’s land.
When Rose Marie passed away, her grandson Jerome Miller, Randy’s grandfather, inherited the land. In the 1960s, the Douglas and Chelan County public utility districts began building a dam above Azwell without communicating with Jerome. Behind the newly erected Wells dam, the rising waters of the mighty Columbia River swallowed the homes of Randy’s family. After decades of compromise to keep their heritage intact, it was all under water. For Rose-Marie’s descendants, it was another betrayal in the name of Wells. A.Z. Wells’ orchards and the town of Azwell were untouched.
In the delicate brush strokes of the watercolors, Randy Lewis recognized Tumwater Canyon and Icicle Creek near Leavenworth. He asked Linda if he could research the artist and send copies to the Wenatchee Valley Museum to verify the signature. The ceramic plates in the painting matched the Wells estate plates on display at the museum. “E. Wells” was Emogene.
For Randy, this discovery was a valuable piece to an overall narrative: “Here is a fine accomplished artist in the frontier rush. She was a woman who was ahead of her time and sadly overlooked in 1904. My mother and grandfather told us our whole world is a jigsaw puzzle. Everybody holds a piece. People don’t realize the value of that piece until all the parts come together. Regardless of what happened between our families years ago, our lives are intertwined. To take a piece away diminishes our world, our lives.”
Linda Melvin and her family have agreed to give the original watercolors to the Wenatchee Valley Museum.