In 1971 Sam Wells gave a handmade book of his poetry to my sister Gina. This is one of the poems:
Asa Whitney’s Dream
I’m gonna ride on Asa Whitney’s dream
and check out Walt Whitman’s land
and find me a silver mine
Come with me, honey
an’ we’ll find out what those singing wires
were all about
And we’ll watch the semaphores
and all the signs
in the night
and drink Hot sun
photo courtesy Jay McDonald.
We knew Sam and his brother Johnny from the time we were toddlers living in New Hope, PA. He always claimed (with that mischievous smirk) that he had watched my sister and myself running around nude under a sprinkler. My sister thinks we were watching the naked brothers instead.
A few years later, both families moved to Princeton. I lost touch with Sam after high school, but when my old Princeton High School pal Marty Heitner emailed to say that Sam had won a Guggenheim fellowship in 2003 for his film work, I reached out to congratulate him.
And from that point forward, Sam and I were in touch fairly often. I was living in West Chester, PA from 2004-2010 and when my sister came up to visit in 2006, we met Sam for lunch in Princeton. He took us on a mini tour of the town we’d both left behind. It was my first trip back in over 35 years and the town was both changed and unchanged. A new espresso shop that Sam called his ‘front porch’ was Small World, where he hung out daily and caught up on the daily news.
Our childhood home, walking the long driveway into the backyard. Sam gamely went along to bolster our spirits. 8 Hamilton Ave was within three blocks of where Sam lived when we were in high school.
I invited Sam to my opening at Viridian in Chelsea in February 2007, where he first met Ali Hossaini, an old friend of mine from San Francisco, now relocated to NYC.
As always, Sam was most animated when he was talking about film or his own work.
Also attending the opening were my other dear friends from Princeton days; Marty Heitner and his niece Rachel Gardner and son Gage, Libby (Wert) Crowley and her husband Bill.
In a December 2006 email, Sam described a new piece he’d been working on and had recently won a grant from the NJ Council for the Arts. In March of 2007 he would show the work in an exhibit at the Ben Shahn Galleries at William Paterson University in Wayne, NJ:
I’ve just done another section of Fragrance Of Ghosts, called “Kieu” (named for the famous Vietnamese poem “The Tale Of Kieu”) and —it’s what I’ve wanted to do for 30 years and finally, finally I’ve done it. I didn’t know it ’till I saw it, but there it is.
And this was his email for the invite to the show:
I’ve done the first two parts of my Vietnam project “Fragrance Of Ghosts” as a digital installation piece, it’s 16mm film transferred to High Definition, worked on with layering, compositing etc – and will show as a continuing loop in a dark space I created in the gallery, on an Apple 23″ display used as a sort of animated canvas so to speak.
It was a gorgeous looping clip that deserved a quiet space in a museum. Dark, mysterious, and non-narrative, it had the feeling of alienation and at the same time, a reunion. I remember a lovely, young Asian woman standing/walking on a bridge over water. Then she was double exposed and there were twins. As abstract as Monet’s late paintings of Giverny, with green the predominant color, fronds of bamboo bordering the frame edges. Sam portrayed Vietnam’s dense, tropical heat without being literal. The din of the opening competed with the mystery and quiet contemplation that this piece offered to the viewer.
Sam had wanted to get more involved in digital imaging and editing programs, like Photoshop and AfterEffects and I helped to make that possible. He loved to experiment with new technology that he hadn’t used before:
I want layers bubbling and moving, things flying…
Here are some shots from August 2007 when he was first fooling around with Photoshop:
A later series of photographs called ‘Orphic’ include water and are darkly poetic. One still that he emailed me in early December of 2008 is titled ‘Self Portrait’ or ‘Phoenix’. Our parry went:
me being literal: …thrown in the towel or something to that effect?
Or figure floating face down in water. Although an optimist could see an angel 😉
When I asked where he had shot this, he answered:
On Sunday, in my “Zone” (after Andrei Tarkovsky’s great “Stalker”) which is in the post-industrial wilds of Morrisville PA. A great location, I shoot there every time it’s heavy rain —- my new film is morphing towards shooting there, it’s “found its home there” since I discovered it in late September….What I’m doing now is far beyond what I’ve done before…
I agreed – these were tragic, romantic and ironic all at the same time. Sam told me that he didn’t pose these compositions, but found the subject during his scouting. And he waited for the water to do its magic, and then shot.
There is an article about the genius of the director Martin Scorsese in the July issue of Harper’s magazine, Scorsese on the Cross, America’s last best tragedian, by Vince Passaro. He suggests that Scorsese’s consistent emotional theme is isolation and that his greatest gift may be his ability to ‘uphold the tragic vision’ in our culture. He goes on to explain that “Tragedy is inherently, necessarily, uncompromising. And it makes much of the audience squirm with its painful and paradoxical insistence that our lives are ruled both by individual agency and the iron dictates of society, family, and fate.”
Sam could be compared to Scorsese in that regard. His work is tragic (especially Wired Angel), isolationist and his later works that focused on Vietnam offer an obsession with a culture entertwined with America’s in a love/hate relationship.
A doll’s head encircled by plastic bags that look like surreal and magical jellyfish. Water with eddies impossible to discern fully, fallen branches in the upper quadrants, surface raindrops, and more foliage edging out from the frames into the scenes. In high definition these are incredibly beautiful, but detail is lost through the compression needed for this blog template….
He agreed to go with me for our 40th PHS reunion in June of 2008 – Marty Heitner and I went over to Sam’s apartment before the festivities to view his latest work and see his impressive setup. He talked about how proud he was of his daughter Julia, in Rutgers studying public health at the time and he spoke about his parents; two early computer engineering whiz’s.
On a second trip in July of 2008 Sam took Ali and myself on the ‘avant’ tour of Princeton. I wish I had a recording of that day – Sam told us about his great uncle, John Notman, an architect from Philly who had designed Prospect House on the campus. His anecdotes about what used to be versus what had changed in the town were both poignant and practical. Sam didn’t live in the past, but history was important to him for how he viewed the present.
Ali had been an Executive Producer with Rainbow Media and at the time was helping to produce a series of experimental video and film for the internet TV network, Babelgum. I felt that Sam’s work could bring much needed gravitas and production value to the series, but unfortunately he didn’t get into one of their competitions – showing a lack of the jurors’ own visions. Sam was prescient prior to the event, saying: The new movie is beautiful but who (would want it) these days… it’s not American Idol.
I have an earlier post of the Princeton trip with more photos.
The last photo is of a snippet of Sam’s face and Princeton Cemetery, where my father, who died at 60 in the summer of 1971, is buried.
This was the last time I saw Sam. He was on the verge of being evicted from his apartment, and I was newly unemployed from my tv gig, planning on a return to Atlanta if I couldn’t find a job in the northeast. We were both struggling. During 2009 and 2010, he emailed sporadically, mostly I saw his posts on Facebook. I was happy to see that he was involved with new work and had developed a relationship, but apparently money issues were still plaguing him.
A December 2010 Christmas ‘card’ of his work called ‘Nativity’.
Last week I learned that Sam had throat cancer that had metastasized into his lungs. He had ended up in the ICU at Princeton Hospital, dying unexpectedly on June 3 before he could get treatment. An outpouring of grief and shock from friends on his Facebook wall helped to staunch the pain.
Sam did what a lot of people would really like to do but aren’t brave enough; he devoted himself entirely to his work and became the consummate artist, breaking through personal barriers on his journey. Money, health, stability – nothing was as important to him as developing his vision. The independent film and art world is his work’s true home. May it live on and create as much joy and wonder for others as Sam created for himself.
Several friends posted recent photographs on Sam’s Facebook wall. Some are shown here courtesy the photographer Michael Cohen.
With the hands of a sculptor and the grace of a dancer… Sam’s elfin and determined self from my 1968 Princeton high school yearbook.
Reviews of Sam’s work here.