One thing I love about the Quaz is the exposure it brings to people with whom I share little in common.
For example, Lynnette Shelley and I both worked at the University of Delaware’s student newspaper in the early 1990s. And, eh, um, hmmm … we both have, eh, hands. And, ah, feet. Noses, too. Otherwise, however, we’re pretty far apart in the “what are your interests?” categories. Lynnette is an artist who specializes in contemporary mixed media animal paintings. I have a dog. Lynnette is the lead singer of two bands—one (Green Cathedral) that “explores the mythologies of this and other times, as well as the inner journeys of the mind, heart and soul” and another (The Red Masque) that boasts of an “experimental songwriting style [that] is both angular and eerie, accented by freeform space rock improvisations.” I like Tupac and A Tribe Called Quest. Lynnette’s personal photos lean dark and mysterious. My T-shirts are pretty much all bright with logos.
The point? I dunno, but it’s thrilling to have my old classmate here this week to chat art, music, criticism and LeBron James (a man she’s pretty sure plays basketball) possibly coming to Los Angeles.
Lynnette Shelley, you are the new Quaz …
JEFF PEARLMAN: So Lynnette, I want to start with something very specific. One of your eye-catching pieces of art is called “Apres Espirit.” I’m staring at it as I write this, and I’d love to know—soup to nuts—how this one came to be. Where did the idea begin? When did the art begin? How long did it take? What were you trying to express?
LYNNETTE SHELLEY.: While some artworks kind of evolve as I am creating them, this one I had an idea in my head that was very close to what the end artwork ended up looking like. I have been working on a series of long vertical artworks, and for this one, I wanted to put an African woman as the central, sun-goddess type of figure, with a swarm of orange butterflies coming up the sideS. In this work the after image of a spirit (here represented by the bottom butterfly ) is both in this world and in the next. Butterflies symbolize resurrection and eternity in many stories. The hummingbird represents lightness of spirit as well as a spirit messenger (in many myths, birds are messengers for the gods). The figure in the piece has a crown with a moon and a sun on it, representing life cycles and her gown is adorned with various solar and floral symbols, representing life. Taken in total, this new artwork is meant to show how a loved one, who is passed, still has their image in our hearts and lives on in thoughts and memory and in their imprint upon the world.
I chose to do an African woman for the figure partially because when I was envisioning a sun goddess type of figure, I pictured a person of color in my head. I also wanted to use a person of color because it occurred to me that most of the people I have drawn in the past have been Caucasian. Though I do not tend to draw humans very often (I am more known for my animal paintings), I decided to do a person of color because a) that’s how I was envisioning it in my head and b) I thought I should try and represent a broader spectrum of humanity. Plus with all the current racial tensions and bigotry, I just wanted to represent a beautiful, positive image of a POC in my painting.
The actual painting I started working on this past October. I’d say I worked on it off and on for about a two weeks. I also had originally made a much smaller, simpler version of this image prior to working on the larger one. The smaller version, which was a prototype for me to work out some ideas, sold almost immediately to someone who saw it on Instagram.
J.P.: How, as an artist, do you take criticism? You are the gallery manager at Ivystone Studio, where your work is displayed. So surely you’ve heard customers openly say stuff along the lines of, “Oh, that’s [fill in the blank]” and “Ugh, no thanks.” Just because art is so subjective. So … is it painful? No biggie? Do you develop thick skin over time?
L.S.: I kind of wear two hats. When I am working on stuff, I have my artist hat on and I am putting my energy and emotion and my artistic sensibilities into the piece. Once it’s finished, I put my business hat on, and I don’t (usually) take things personally. Trust me, over the past 10 years I’ve been working as a ‘professional’ artist, I have heard all kinds of things said about my art—some are well meaning, some are downright rude. It’s actually pretty appalling what some of the general public will say to an artist that they wouldn’t dream of saying to their neighbor or co-worker.
For example, once I had a solo show at a gallery. The whole gallery was filled with my work. A well-to-do woman came in and the gallery director introduced us. She looked around the gallery and said, “So what do you do for a living?” I gestured at the art on the walls and said, “This.” She laughed and then said, “So your husband supports you then, right?” First of all this is insulting on many levels—either she’s saying my work is not good enough to sell or that I must mooch off my husband to support my “career.” Not that’s it’s anyone’s business, as how people earn a living, or support themselves, is entirely their business, but I have never relied on my husband to support me. He’s a musician and an artist as well so we both are used to working freelance. We both support each other.
Some of this is lack of education or lack of familiarity. I try not to take it personally. I won’t say I always succeed at that, because I am human, but to do anything in the public eye you kind of have to develop a thick skin. I am in a couple of original bands too, and a lot of that was trial by fire when I first started and you just have to not let people get you down or you won’t ever leave the house or do anything creative. You have to listen to your inner voice that keeps pushing you to try harder.
J.P.: You’re the lead singer of Green Cathedral, a self-identified “contemporary art rock band.” And your debut album came out earlier this year. But what, in 2017, does releasing an album mean/entail? I mean, I can’t think of the last time I bought an album as an actual item …
L.S.: It means we self released the album and paid for the studio time and mastering out of pocket and then released digital downloads on various sites (so now you can hear us on iTunes, CD Baby, Bandcamp, Spotify etc) as well as a physical CD that you can purchase through CD Baby. We have a limited amount of physical CDs that we use to mail out for promotional purposes (i.e. many magazines and radio stations need a physical copy of the CD) and the rest we will bring out to shows when we play out. We also needed recordings to try and book us shows in the future since we are a new band and need something for people to get an idea of what we are about. You can check out Green Cathedral and stream our music at www.green-cathedral.com.
I personally do purchase physical albums as well as downloads but I am a musician so well-crafted studio recordings created by professionals are important to me. Unfortunately we live in a throw-away mass-produced culture that doesn’t appreciate the arts (or at least doesn’t like to pay for it), but not everyone feels that way. There is a lot of really wonderful music that you will never hear on mainstream radio but if you like to search new things out, it’s there. But if you want artists to be able to continue to make music, and record albums in professional studios with good equipment and not just on the laptop in their garage with whatever cheap equipment they can cobble together, then you have to show your support by paying for it.
J.P.: We both graduated from the University of Delaware in the mid-1990s, both worked for the student newspaper, The Review. But, from there, how did this happen? When did you know you’d be an artist as a career? When did you first know you had talent? And how many times has someone said, through the years, “Don’t you want to make money?” or “How do you expect that to work out?” Because that seems to come with the artistic turf.
L.S.: I have always been an artist. I have been drawing since I was old enough to pick up a crayon, but when I went to the university, it didn’t occur to me (at that time) to try and pursue a career in the arts. I didn’t know any professional artists at that time. When I was trying to consider my major and possible career paths, my dad suggested I become a broadcast journalist. I didn’t think I would be good as an on-air type of personality but I was (and still am) a decent writer. So I chose print journalism. I also took art classes while I was at the university. I did work in the publishing industry for 10 years or so upon graduation. But as you know, the publishing world has changed drastically since the mid ’90s and I found myself constantly hopping from job to job, working, in many cases, for really terrible employers.
So, in 2007, I had had it with my current job (I was working in the production department of a Philadelphia daily newspaper). I quit, and started working freelance as a graphic designer as well as started showing my paintings out. Eventually I did less and less of the design work and did more and more fine art and getting more serious about my art career. Now I am primarily a fine artist, though I still do some design work on the side as needs be, as well as work part-time at Ivystone Studio in Downingtown.
I think, because I originally tried to do the “safe” thing and work a conventional job, I can appreciate what am doing now. I realized that I have to do what I am actually good at , and what my calling is, regardless of whether it’s a “safe” job or not. And to be honest, there are no safe jobs anyway. When I had conventional jobs, I got laid off at least three times over the course of 10 years due to mergers and the like. Being a good worker was no guarantee that your company would have any kind of loyalty to you. I never even got paid very well for the work I did do. It’s just not that kind of world anymore. So I figured I might as well do what I want to do, and work for myself, because at least I can count on myself.
J.P.: I follow you on Facebook, I see your website, etc—and you ooze a Zen that I envy. I mean, every day I’m freaking out about Trump, North Korea, Mike Pence, the environment, etc … etc. Am I misreading this? Are you freaking, too? Or have you found a way to relax and maintain?
L.S.: No, I am freaking out! Ask my husband as he has to listen to me rant sometimes, lol. I try not to freak out online as much, because it’s just shouting in a bubble, and also, because my profiles are public and I have many clients who are connected with me on social media, I try to not put anything personal online. I don’t always succeed at that, but I try and keep that in mind.
That being said, this year I have been really depressed over people’s behavior. I remember during the lead-up to the election, all my friends were like, “Don’t worry, Trump won’t win.” But I had a sinking feeling he would win, because he appealed to the lowest common denominator and to people’s fears. And when he did win, there were people who surprised me for having voted for him. While the ugliness has always been there, I think this election has shone a bright spotlight on the many ways this country still needs to evolve. I try to have hope, but it’s hard. I am glad I don’t have children. I don’t know how I would explain this to them.
That beings said, I know there is a stereotype of the depressed/angsty artist painting their emotions on the canvas. While some artists are like this, for me, I cannot create if I am upset. Creating art does make me calm and focused because you have to be 100 percent in the zone to create. You need to focus on the artwork in front of you. So it is a kind of meditation in a way. It’s also a job, like any other. I get up in the morning, i drink my coffee, I paint.
J.P.: Your resume lists a ton of awards you’ve won through the years, and I wonder—as an artist—whether you care. What I mean is, I like a painting, you don’t. Is there a way of truly deeming something first place worthy vs. third place worthy? In short, do awards matter in art?
L.S.: No, not really, other than getting the warm fuzzies. Having dealt with art critics and judges, there is no rhyme or reason to who wins. It all comes down to what the judge likes. I don’t really care about awards other than if they come with cash that’s nice, and yeah, you can stick it on your resume. Though it is true certain high profile awards (and cash) can really help an artist in their career. I haven’t really approached that end of the business yet.
J.P.: You’re in a second band, “The Red Masque.” And your bio says this: “Part art, part alchemy, the group’s experimental songwriting style is both angular and eerie, accented by freeform space rock improvisations, intricate acoustics, dark atmospherics and chunky riffs. Unconventional and eccentric in musical form, the sophisticatedly sinister The Red Masque fuses together such disparate musical references as horror movie soundtracks, rock-in-opposition, progressive rock, experimental, zeuhl, heavy rock, gothic, psychedelia, space rock, and kraut rock.” Um, what the hell does that mean? Who are you guys?
L.S.: We are an experimental progressive rock band. If you follow that scene, some of the terms used are specific sub-genres under the umbrella label of progressive rock. But basically, for the layman, we play very heavy progressive rock with a good dose of dark psychedelics and musical improvisation thrown in. We are currently in the studio and we hope to finish a new album by early 2018.
J.P.: OK, off of that—I just listened to your song, “The Labyrinth.” And I’m both riveted and a little confused. So how did this tune come to be? What are you trying to say? Put forth?
L.S.: That particular song is an improvisation, i.e. created entirely in the moment, in the studio. So while many of our songs we write and rehearse for months before they are ever recorded or played live, improvisations are spontaneous. We all jam with one another and create something on the spot. So there is more of a looseness and, in many cases, experimentation going on during the jam. Sometimes a jam can fail miserably, but when everyone is on, it’s magical. I would say, if you are not used to listening to improvisations, or freeform music, your best bet is to just let the music envelop you and not try to think about it too linearly. It’s an atmosphere. It’s soundscaping. It’s like abstract art. It’s texture and auditory colors.
Although I wrote most of the lyrics in the Red Masque, for that particular piece, my husband (bassist / keyboardist Brandon Lord Ross) wrote the words as a poem. Don’t ask me what he was thinking. 😉
J.P.: Greatest moment of your career? Lowest?
L.S.: I feel like I am still climbing towards that greatest moment. Maybe I’ll know it when I get to it. Lowest point? Well, most artists have been at that point, where nothing is selling, and you think you may have to give everything up. I’ve been there a few times. I’ve been down to a negative bank balance and bills piling up. I’ve had panic attacks in the middle of the night because I am not sure how I am going to make it. Sometimes I’ve had to ask for help. And through it all you have to think of the big picture. And do what you have to do to keep going. Being an artist is a long-game. You have to keep focused on the big picture and always be ready to adapt. This is not a “safe” profession and to be successful requires wearing multiple hats and working long hours and being 100 percent committed, even when it seems like you are doing an insane thing.
J.P.: How do you feel about modern pop? Taylor Swift, Demi Lovato, etc? Can you find yourself in the car humming along? Are you horrified?
L.S.: It’s complete dreck.
QUAZ EXPRESS WITH LYNNETTE SHELLEY:
• This is my all-time favorite song. What do you think?: I like it. I like some Blind Melon music though they are not in my top ten bands or anything. I did see them at a festival in DC back in the 90s and they put on a good show.
• Rank in order (favorite to least): Dan Marino, The Scronge, iPhone X, Thanksgiving, John Boyne, typewriters, Slick Rick, Twitter, Keebler Elf, Kim Jung Un, pet snakes, Ontario, Fred Flintstone: I don’t know who Dan Marino, John Boyne, Slick Rick, or The Scronge is. Do you mean U of D’s “The Scrounge?”. IF so, it was fine. My one band, The Red Masque, played a show there very early on in our careers, back in 2001. I think it was our second gig.
I have never owned an iPhone so can’t comment about iPhone X.
I just looked up John Boyne and I guess I did see a movie of one of his novels, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas , which I did like. I’ll have to look up his work. For novelists, I’ve been really into Octavia Butler lately, and also I read a really excellent book this past year called Annihilation by Jeff VanderMeer. A friend of mine gave it to me for my birthday. I hear they are making a movie of it too.
I guess I’ll put Kim Jung Un as my least favorite because he’s a murderous psychopath 😉
I like snakes. They are fun to draw.
This past Thanksgiving I had an excellent roasted cauliflower with mushroom gravy that my mom made.
I have been to Toronto once, briefly. It seemed very clean. Otherwise, my only other experience with Canada has been Quebec (went during February and thought I’d die from the cold) and Montreal (which was fun).
• Five all-time favorite bands: Can’t name just five so here are my tops: David Bowie, Van Der Graaf Generator, Magma (for live shows they can’t be beat), Siouxsie and the Banshees, King Crimson (early to mid period), Kate Bush, PJ Harvey, Bauhaus, Nick Cave. Some more recent / current favorite bands include Purson, Ghost, Wolf People, and Steven Wilson.
• Do you think LeBron James leaves Cleveland after this season ends?: I do not follow sports at all. So you are asking the wrong person. He’s a basketball player, right?
• What are your three favorite smells?: cinnamon, sandalwood, orange
• Two memories from your first date?: Leaving out school dances and the like, I remember I went roller skating with a guy when I was about 15 but ended up in the emergency room because I fell and split my chin open. So I’d say that went pretty well. 😉
• Who wins in a 12-round wrestling match between you and Mike Pence? What’s the outcome?: LOL. I’d like to think Karmic justice would be on my side.
• Celine Dion calls—she offers $10 million for you to move to Las Vegas for the year, change your name to “Rose Dawson Shelley,” teach her painting eight hours every day while wearing only slippers and clothes made of live moths. You in?: No. If the clothes were made of lime-green Loofah sponges I may reconsider.
• Tell me something interesting about your mother: She used to be nun (or rather a novice nun in training). Obviously it didn’t take.
• On a scale of 1 to 100, how terrified are you of your own death?: 10? I can’t say I think of it very much. At some point, as I get older, I’m sure I’ll think of it more. I don’t think it’s death that I will be afraid of but rather if there is pain preceding it. Or I would hate to lose my mental facilities beforehand and then linger on as a shell of myself. And I’d be sad for any loved ones I am leaving behind. I’d like to know they’d be OK. And I hope that I can accomplish something in this life before I go.
• In exactly 16 words, make a case for Young MC’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: He reached top 10 Billboard success and was a big name in West Coast hip hop.