That old saying “less is more” obviously doesn’t apply when it comes to artist Shelley Davis: she’s all about the dimension and texture. “When I see something plain,” Davis says, “I want to embellish it.”
Her artistic output is varied, running the gamut from three-dimensional mixed-media assemblage pieces to unique “photo-fusion” works that look like paintings, but there’s always that common thread that runs through all of her work: a layering of objects and images to create something multi-dimensional, both in form and in layers of meaning.
This is especially evident in a piece like “Violinist on Violin: Betty MacDonald.” Davis painted a portrait of the late jazz violinist from Woodstock directly onto an antique violin, which becomes an integral part of the finished piece. “I love to paint on objects. . .anything that beckons me, really,” said Davis.
She enjoys the way that painting directly onto an object imbues its energy into the completed work, and says that she looks for that “energy of life, chi of life” to come across in everything she does. “I’ve always loved combining materials and experimenting. To do the same thing all the time is unfathomable to me. . . I can’t even conceive of it. I have to play, it’s an adventure to me.”
The approach may be experimental, but Davis spends a great deal of time on each of her pieces, and she pays particular attention to the finishing details. “My work is not raw,” she says. “Everything has to have a balance, and has to hang together. I work on a piece until it feels complete, and when it’s finished, it hits me.”
Breaking the rules
Brooklyn-raised Davis knew early on that she wanted to spend her life making art, but she gave in to pressure from her parents to attend college to become a teacher, earning an MFA degree in painting and photography from SUNY New Paltz.
Working in photography in the traditional sense didn’t quite sit well with Davis, though. “Photography is mathematical,” she says. “I’m not that kind of person.”
She began spending a lot of time in the darkroom doing distortions to her photos, overlaying images and experimenting with them. “I started painting on the photos, and cutting them, and collaging onto them until the photos became a medium to work with as opposed to an end [product],” Davis says. She coined the term “photo-fusion” to describe these works.
Davis doesn’t like to divulge too much about her working methods, but will say that the photo-fusion works are done with acrylic paints on high-quality Cibachrome photographic paper. “By the time a photo-fusion piece is finished,” she says, “it’s hard to tell what part is painted and what part was photo or collaged.” The final piece is also unified by displaying it under glass, which gives a uniform sheen to the work. Davis says she had difficulty getting galleries during the ’70s and ’80s to exhibit these works, because “photography galleries back then didn’t consider the work photography, and fine-art galleries didn’t consider it fine art. Today, things are different.”
Davis did put her degree to work to teach art from time to time, including a stint at NYU during the years she lived in the city, but she eventually gave up teaching to create art full-time.”When you feel the calling, you almost have no choice about it,” she says. “Not if you want to be true to yourself.”
During her years in the city, Davis also ran a design business creating ornamented sunglasses. She also became an advocate at that time on behalf of various dog-related causes, working to establish the first dog parks in the city and helping to gain the right for therapy dogs to go into acute care hospitals.
Now based in Saugerties for some 15 years, Davis is inspired by the beauty and the energy of the region. She’s enthusiastic about participating again in the annual Saugerties Artists Studio Tour on the weekend of Aug. 13-14, where she’ll join dozens of her fellow artists in opening up her studio to the public. “It’s really a nice thing having the artists reaching out to the community, and the community to the artists,” said Davis. “I like to observe their reactions to my work. I can set up the space the way I want and it’s so much fun.”
Visitors will find a space painted entirely white, floor to ceiling. The studio, flooded with natural light from skylights, will be filled with all the various manifestations that Davis’ work takes, from the photo-fusion pieces to the art-to-wear jewelry Davis makes, miniature versions of her collaged and combined multi-media pieces. Also on display will be works like “Mademoiselle,” a three-dimensional work made from bits of broken porcelain, paper tags, ribbons, and tassels. (To see this piece before the studio tour, check out the window of Smith Hardware store on Main Street, where it will be on display for the first week and a half in August.) Another piece with a French vibe is “Cirque Paris,” a detailed layering of Victorian animal illustrations and children’s toys in a three-dimensional assemblage. “The child in me created that,” Davis said, laughing.
The works are generally small to medium size. “I may make bigger pieces someday,” Davis says, “but I really like the intimacy of something you can hold close, something small enough to hold on your lap, to see up close.”
Most recently, Davis has been working on a series of floral pieces, multi-media collages of rice papers, silk flowers, and paint. “I’m working on a big round one called “Ohm” with florals in a circle around a yin and yang center. I’ve also been doing some altered-art pieces,” she says, referencing an artwork she created recently utilizing an antique book that she altered to transform it into something new. This work was on display at the Kiersted house in July, and on Aug. 1 moved to Cafe Mezzaluna for exhibit.
For more information about the Saugerties Artists Studio Tour, visit saugertiesarttour.com.