by Anthony Harrison

“Whiskey Bar” by the Doors played in Earshot Records in Winston-Salem. Then came Johnny Cash’s “Big River,” John Lennon’s “Mind Games,” Nirvana’s “Come As You Are” and Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash double-teaming “Girl from the North Country.”

The excellent sequence of songs was no happy chain of serendipity, though. Earshot owner Phred Rainey selected each to correspond with the opening of a new exhibit at his shop: In Their Own Words, a series of pen-and-ink drawings by Dennis Wells.

Wells has been on a roll lately. Art for Art’s Sake recently chose him to paint a mural for Artivity on the Green; the piece is a dreamy, Picasso-esque painting of a woman on her side, colored with bold yellow and deep blue. Now, he’s showing his drawings at Earshot record store in Winston-Salem through September.

The 12 drawings comprising this iteration of In Their Own Words are musicians — Earshot serves as a fitting venue for his exhibition. Elvis Presley, Willie Nelson, Jim Morrison, Mick Jagger, Bob Dylan, Johnny Cash, Janis Joplin, Joey Ramone, Buddy Holly, Jimi Hendrix, Kurt Cobain and John Lennon are all represented by their quotations and lyrics. They hang on the pistachio-colored far wall in the newly renovated record shop.

The result is somewhat impressionistic: The viewer can clearly discern who the artist is from afar, only realizing the image is created by text while up close.

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Wells hopes the showing will help raise not only his own profile, but also Earshot Records.

Despite the free finger food, PBR and Stella Artois offered for the opening receptions, only a few patrons walked into the store. Some checked out the shirts Wells had on sale, all prints from In Their Own Words; some others just flipped through the vinyl selection.

Wells began working on the pieces last year, beginning with a drawing of Edgar Allan Poe.

“I’m a member of Art for Art’s Sake, and they had a series called Bookmarks centered around a literary theme,” Wells said. “I started with Poe, thinking, ‘What if the literature actually was the art?’ and people liked the series.”

Wells has also drawn authors, celebrities, politicians and world leaders ranging from Ayn Rand to Robert Frost for a total of more than 30 pieces.

“Somebody commissioned Thomas Jefferson, another asked for Winston Churchill and Albert Einstein — anybody who’s said enough interesting things where I’ve been able to create the image,” Wells said.

Wells enjoys working on the series, but must take breaks on the project from time to time.

“I can only work on them for so long,” Wells said. “It gets tedious, and my eyes cross. I try to get them all word for word, correct punctuation and all.”

Wells’s process for doing the drawings and finding inspiration came as novel, though not surprising.

“I’ll search for reference photos for people on Google until I find one that really grabs me,” Wells said. “I always listen to music when I’m working. That or documentaries; documentaries are something you don’t have to give undivided attention to.

“My musical tastes run the gamut,” Wells added. “My shuffle gets spastic. It’ll be Bach and Beethoven at one point; Metallica the next.”

As much as he relishes the artistic side of the work, Wells also admitted learning about the subjects of his portraits fascinated him.

“As I’m researching, I learn a lot about these people,” Wells said. “You start off familiar with their music and lyrics, but musicians’ quotes really surprise you. Some things they talk about, you wouldn’t expect from just hearing their music.”

In Their Own Words represents something of a diversion from Wells’ other works.

“I do other pen-and-inks, but they’re more contemporary and geometric,” Wells said.

“One of my favorite artists and biggest influences has been Picasso,” Wells continued. “He said, ‘I paint things as I think them, not as I see them.’ Not to take anything away from photorealism — that takes a lot of work and talent — but I like to put myself in my art and distort things how I interpret them in my mind.”

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