Have a story from Harlan’s Barbershop? Jill Wells wants to make it a part of her new Des Moines art piece

Artist Jill Wells works on her art installation at 2513 Woodland Ave in Des Moines. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

Barbershops have long served as social and cultural hubs for Black Americans, and Harlan’s Barbershop, open for half a century in Des Moines’ Woodland Heights neighborhood, was no exception.

Harlan’s opened in 1968; that same year, construction finished on I-235, which had displaced thriving Black businesses, churches and communities in the Center Street district, not far from Woodland Heights. Center Street was home to a booming jazz and blues music scene, and Harlan’s was named after a major figure in this scene: Harlan Thomas performed in the Soul Brothers, among other groups, and was a 1999 inductee into the Central Iowa Blues Society.

Harlan didn’t just lend his name to the shop, but co-owned it. Together with his business partner William Thomas, they transformed 2513 Woodland Ave, which had served as a grocery store from 1913 to ’63, into a barbershop. As they predicted, Harlan’s became a gathering space for former Center Street residents, musicians and friends.

It’s been seven years since Harlan’s Barbershop shut down for good, due to sewer renovations in 2015. But Central Iowa artist Jill Wells isn’t content to let 47 years of memories fade away.

Determined to preserve its legacy, Wells is collecting stories of those who knew Harlan’s, and plans to capture its history in an art piece utilizing a black-scale color palette and a pair of 48-by-60-inch wood panels, salvaged from the walls of the old shop.

Stories from the historic Harlan’s Barbershop will be incorporated in the 2513 piece. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

“It will include hundreds of stories, quotes or names printed in black text on black butterflies,” Wells said of the diptych, which will celebrate the beauty of Blackness. “Those butterflies will be arranged into a larger, 3D image and adhere to the surface of the salvaged barbershop wall panels.”

Wells will gather stories through the end of September. The finished piece will be displayed next to a photography project from Janae Patrice, including photos of Harlan Thomas and his wife April Thomas; the Woodland Avenue building over the years; and the hair stylings of Des Moines-based stylist Keadra Foster.

Sequel Architecture, a local firm owned by Steve Wilke-Shapiro, was selected by the City of Des Moines to renovate the building. Earlier in the year, Wilke-Shapiro got in touch with Wells to take on the project.

Wells expects to unveil the art installation in early October, when the renovated building, which will now operate as offices for Sequel Architecture, is expected to open.

Artist Jill Wells works on her art installation at 2513 Woodland Ave in Des Moines. — Courtney Guein/Little Village

This article was originally published in Little Village’s September 2023 issue.