Steve Wells: Art Collector, ALS Survivor

Photo of Steve Wells, art collector

Art Collector Steve Wells (Submitted Photo)

By Mark Skeffington

Steve Wells’ hospital room walls are covered with Canadian art.

Steve, who is North America’s longest living person with ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis), has made a conscious decision to surround himself with beautiful things that bring him joy as he continues to beat the odds against the terminal disease.

“Yes, I have ALS. Yes, I reside in a hospital. SO WHAT! Life is what you make it, so If surrounding myself with art brings me pleasure, why wouldn’t I do it,” he says, voicing his optimistic attitude towards life.

There is no sterility to Steve’s 200-square-foot Toronto hospital room, where he has lived for 13 years. Yes, there’s a hospital bed, medical supplies and a wheelchair he spends much of his days in, but the rest of the room resembles an apartment, filled with furniture, a computer and art.

Canadian Art Collection

The art is an eclectic mix: paintings by Ken Kirby, Armand Tatossian, Bruno Cote and Hortense Gordon; an A.Y. Jackson silkscreen; Canadian Indigenous and Inuit art; and some prints. There’s also Cape Dorset soapstone carvings of polar bears and inukshuks sitting atop his cadenza.

Steve buys art with the money he makes as a stock and options day trader, communicating by using a specialized eye-controlled computer. Instead of typing on a keyboard, he looks at letters, words and programs on the screen.

Now 57, Steve has become an anomaly by living 37 years past diagnosis with ALS, an incurable disease that typically causes a rapid loss of a person’s muscles, leading to paralysis. ALS used to be called Lou Gehrig’s Disease, named after the former baseball star.

“I am proud of being the longest living ‘ALS’er’ in North America and quite possibly South America, as well. Part of my intentions are altruistic given that I am a nice story; that which inspires people, both ‘ALS’ers’ and not,” he says in an email interview.

Inspiring Story

Steve’s story is inspiring, especially when you look at the grim statistics stacked against him: half of those diagnosed with ALS pass away within 2 years, and 50% of the remaining survivors pass away within 5 years. The chances of living past the first decade dwindle dramatically; the same is progressively true for decade 2 and decade 3.

Steve has been profiled in The Toronto Star, National Post and other publications, and it is tempting to draw comparisons to physicist Stephen Hawking. Hawking, whose story was portrayed in the 2014 movie, The Theory of Everything, has lived more than 50 years with the disease.

Both men have seen ALS debilitate their bodies, but their minds continue to hum and whirl with ideas, emotions and a quest for knowledge, which in Steve’s case led him to start collecting art in 2014.

He explains that his interests were too narrow, too focused on the stock market, so he decided to broaden his mind. He started to take non-credit courses in fields he knew little or nothing about, including art.

Ken Kirkby Inukshuk Painting

“The first course was about The Impressionists. MUCH to my surprise I thoroughly enjoyed it and the rest is history. I had always been a rough and tumble sports guy so to REALLY enjoy looking at art came as quite a surprise.”

Steve contacted me at FineArtCollector in 2015, interested in a majestic Ken Kirby inukshuk painting. Steve’s email explained he was a “mute quadriplegic residing in a Toronto hospital,” and he encouraged me to look up “Steven Wells ALS.”

Since then, Steve has added more art to his collection, including an A.Y. Jackson silkscreen called Dease Bay, part of the Sampson-Matthews Ltd. project.

Steve continues to buy art that catches his eye, while looking for value.

Attracted to Landscapes

“The sheer joy of looking at a beautiful piece and/or a particular artist,” he says, explaining what motivates him to collect. “In the latter case, it is a thought process that more or less tells me that I should own a work by a particular artist for price appreciation.”

Steve has broadened his taste in art since he’s been collecting.

“Initially, I was fond of abstracts but over the past two years I have become increasingly attracted to landscapes. The only explanation that I can think of for this would be, quite simply, a growing appreciation for art in general.”

Lately, Steve has cut back on buying art, focusing more time and money on completing another degree, this one a Bachelor of General Studies, focused on Law and Economics (he already has degrees in Psychology and Physical Education from Queen’s University).

Art Collecting Advice

His art wish list includes: more Group of Seven silkscreens, paintings by Tom Roberts and Bruno Cote, and a Renoir sketch he’s fond of based on the famous painting, Moulin de la Galette.

Steve’s advice to anyone starting to collect art is simple:

“First and foremost, educate thyself prior to purchases. Register on some online art auction houses so that you can see how art is priced (both buying and selling), the artists and to develop a sense of what appeals to you.”

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