Paris Center Stories: Monique Wells and Les Amis de Beauford Delaney
Tell us about yourself. Where are you from and what brought you to Paris?
I’m originally from Houston, TX. I settled here in 1992, when I came to work for the drug company Rhône-Poulenc Rorer. I first thought I would live here for five years, but I fell in love with Paris and decided to stay here permanently. I (and my American husband) now have dual nationality.
Today, I am president of the French non-profit association Les Amis de Beauford Delaney, founder and CEO of the U.S. non-profit organization Wells International Foundation (WIF), and co-founder of the travel service Entrée to Black Paris (ETBP). ETBP created a commemorative walk entitled “Beauford Delaney’s Montparnasse” that includes Reid Hall as a stopping point because of the generous and spirited collaboration that you’ve provided in support of Les Amis’ and WIF’s Beauford Delaney projects.
For those unfamiliar with his life and work, can you give us a brief overview of Beauford Delaney's biography?
Beauford Delaney was born in Knoxville, Tennessee in 1901. As a child, he showed great promise as an artist and was mentored by Lloyd Branson, the premier professional artist in Knoxville at that time. Despite Branson’s white southern upbringing, he taught Beauford, who was African-American, a great deal. He even organized Beauford’s continued pursuit of formal art education in Boston.
Beauford studied at three art institutions in Boston, while working to support himself. He lived there from 1923-1929. He moved to New York City around the time of the Great Depression. He made the acquaintance of many U.S. artists who are now famous and eventually became a local celebrity in Greenwich Village. He also met and became the mentor of James Baldwin, who would become one of the most famous American writers of the 20th century.
From New York, Beauford moved to Paris. He arrived in 1953 and spent the last 26 years of his life here. His experiments with Abstract Expressionism in New York blossomed in Paris and he created some of the finest works of his career in the three studios he inhabited in Paris and the suburb of Clamart. Though he is best known for his abstract works, he also created portraits and other figurative works throughout his career.
Beauford suffered from mental illness and spent the last four years of his life as a patient at Sainte-Anne’s Hospital in Paris’ 14tharrondissement. He died in 1979 and is buried at Thiais Cemetery, outside Paris.
How did you first become aware of his work? Did you feel an instant connection?
I first became aware of Beauford and his work in 2009, when I was researching an article about African-American gravesites in and around Paris. I wanted to include information about him in my article because I knew he was a friend of James Baldwin. I discovered that he was buried in a pauper’s grave without a tombstone and at the behest of his friends, I endeavored to save the gravesite when I learned that his remains were to be exhumed. My connection with him grew through the stories that his friends told me about him as we worked to first preserve the gravesite and then to place a tombstone there.
I began blogging about Beauford to lend credence to the fundraising effort for the tombstone. When we succeeded in doing so, I thought I would “retire” the blog. But something (Beauford) wouldn’t let me stop writing!
After another several months of researching his life, I finally began to examine his art. I started in a very pragmatic way, by researching where his works are held and are being shown. It was during this process that I saw an image of the Abstract Expressionist painting entitled Composition 16. It almost stopped my heart! At that moment, I knew that I needed to begin my research on Beauford all over again – this time to explore his work and how he developed as an artist.
The rest, as they say, is history!
Who are Les Amis de Beauford Delaney and what is their mission?
Les Amis de Beauford Delaney is the French non-profit association that I founded in 2009 to raise money to place the tombstone at Beauford’s grave. Our goals are:
1) Placement and maintenance of a tombstone for the grave of painter Beauford Delaney, who is buried at the Parisian Cemetery of Thiais.
2) Payment of the renewal fees for his grave.
3) Organization of commemorative or educational events in his honor.
4) Inform the press and the media of his life and accomplishments.
I’m proud to say that we’ve succeeded at accomplishing all four of these goals! Given that Goals 2-4 are open ended, we continue to work on them today.
Tell us about the play, Amazing Grace is Yellow. How did it come about?
In the words of playwright Silver Wainhouse:
"Amazing Grace is Yellow was inspired when, during a conversation with Dr. Monique Wells about the life of Beauford Delaney, I said that his life should be presented in a play. She replied, “Why don’t you write it?”
Silver introduced me to Jake Ciganeiro, the journalist who wrote the September 8, 2016 New York Times article entitled “Beauford Delaney Returns to the Scene.” During our meeting, I recounted the experience I’ve just shared with you about becoming acquainted with Beauford. Silver had never heard the full story before, and she became just as enthralled with it as did Jake.
That conversation took place in Paris shortly after the Resonance of Form and Vibration of Color exhibition that Columbia Global Centers | Paris at Reid Hall so generously hosted in February-March 2016. Silver and talked about the idea of a play several times afterward and during one of her visits to Paris, I took her to Thiais Cemetery to visit Beauford’s grave. From that point on, she says she’s been “under his continuing spell.”
In May 2019, Silver informed me that she had finished the first draft of her script and we began brainstorming about how we could bring it to the public. I immediately thought of la Grande Salle at Reid Hall as the perfect venue for a reading, given that half of the Resonance of Form exhibition hung in that same space in 2016. I was thrilled to learn that you were willing to host this event!
Jake Lamar, who is leading the Master Class in Writing that you’re offering this October, provided us with referrals for two professional actors who might be interested in working with Silver and me on this reading. Both accepted and one of them recommended the additional professionals who make up the cast.
Jake also reviewed the script and had the following to say:
"Congratulations on a beautiful and deeply moving work! I really have no critique to offer. I just can't wait to see actors bring this to life!"
Amazing Grace Is Yellow is beautifully written, and Silver and I love the energy with which our cast is breathing life into her words. Everyone who attends the reading should be prepared for a powerful, moving experience!