Wadsworth Jarrell was born in Albany, Georgia. After finishing high school, he was drafted into US Army in 1951 and moved to Chicago after discharge in 1953. Jarrell attended the Ray Vogue School of Art for 1 year, and from 1954-1958 and the School of the Art Institute of Chicago for 4 years earning a Diploma. In Chicago, he worked as a commercial photographer in advertising and set up a mail-order photo and film processing business, Complete Custom Photo Service for the Professional, in WJ Studios, where he taught adult night classes in photography. Jarrell taught adult night classes in drawing and painting, and Saturday morning watercolor classes for children at Woodlawn Experimental Schools Project. A member of the Organization of Black American Culture (OBAC), he painted the Rhythm and Blues section on the Wall of Respect. He is also a founding member of the African Commune of Bad Relevant Artists (AFRICOBRA). Jarrell moved to Washington, DC and earned an MFA from Howard University, taught photography, drawing, and painting there, and also wrote a twelve-course description in photography for the school catalog. He later moved to Athens and Atlanta, Georgia, and partnered with Jae Jarrell, his wife, starting a business, Tadpole Industries-Tadpole Toys and Hobby Center, making educational wood toys, and in Atlanta, another business, with Jae, Say Cheese Bakery. Taught drawing and painting at the University of Georgia, and Spelman College.

Jarrell has participated in solo and selected group exhibitions nationally and internationally including: Chicago Show, Navy Pier, 1958; Hyde Park Art Center, Chicago, 1961; Biennial Water Color and Print Show, Art Institute-Chicago, 1963; Main Street Art Gallery, Chicago, 1965; AFRICOBRA 1-11,Studio Museum in Harlem, 1970-71; AFRICOBRA 1-11, National Center for Afro-African American Artists, Boston, 1970-1971; AFRICOBRA 11 (traveling show), State Museum, Albany, NY, 1972; Ot Och In, Malmo Konstall, Sweden, 1986; Fay Gold Gallery (solo), Atlanta, 1987; AFRICOBRA USA-16’ele Festivel de Culturel, Sermac Center, Martinique, 1987; Just Jazz, Philadelphia, Museum, 1997; Wadsworth Atheneum, Harfort, CT, 2008; AFRICOBRA Philosophy, Logan Canter, Chicago, 2013; Freedom Principles, Contemporary Museum of Art-Chicago, 2015; Soul of a Nation, Tate Modern, London, 2017; From Vietnam to Berlin, Asia Cultural Center, Korea, 2018; Soul of a Nation, Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art, Arkansas, 2018; Heritage: Wadsworth and Jae Jarrell, Cleveland Museum, Ohio, 2018; Now is the Time, Smart Museum, Chicago, 2018; Soul of a Nation, Brooklyn Museum, NY, 2018-19; Soul of a Nation, the Broad Museum, Los Angeles, 2018. AFRICOBRA, Nation Time, Biennale, Venice, 2019. Works in museums: Brooklyn Museum; Detroit Institute of Art; Tate Modern, London; Cleveland Museum; High Museum, Atlanta; Studio Museum in Harlem; National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, DC; Minneapolis Institute of Art, MI. Modern Museum of Art, NY, Whitney Museum of American Art, Portrait Gallery, Wash. DC, Worcester Museum of Art, MA.