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Bayou Artist

By Meagan Russell
In Bayou Artist
Oct 31st, 2019

With a renewed sense of purpose, Shelly Nealy has poured her heart into becoming a full-time, professional artist.

Article by April Clark Honaker | Photography by Kelly Moore Clark

Sometimes in life people have to rediscover their purpose. For artist Shelly Nealy, this has certainly been true. As a kid, she loved being creative, coloring, and playing. She loved what she loved, and art was her favorite class, but adulthood brought some unexpected setbacks. Although she’s confident she’s on the right path now, and it’s wide open, that hasn’t always been the case. For Shelly, becoming a full-time, professional artist has been a long road.

When it came time for her to go to college and choose a major, she was at a loss. She hadn’t seriously considered art as an option, and her mom Marcia Nealy took her to Dallas for aptitude testing. According to Shelly, the results were a bit unexpected, and her mom wasn’t happy with them. The first suggestion given was that Shelly should be an actress. Shelly said her mom looked at the tester and said, “‘Nope, try again.’” When the follow up suggestion involved playing tennis, her mom said, “‘One more time.’” Finally, the tester suggested that Shelly become a teacher. She and her mom didn’t balk at that idea immediately, and Shelly enrolled as an education major at Louisiana Tech University.

Soon after starting college, Shelly decided she needed a break. Being an education major and college in general didn’t seem to be the right fit at the time. Shelly was determined to explore the world, so she took a hiatus to travel.

For part of her travels, a friend joined her. They traveled all over the American west and beyond, figuring things out as they went. Shelly said, “We were two dogs and two girls just going down the road.” At one point in their journey, the pair found themselves low on cash and in need of gas in Hailey, Idaho, so they improvised. They dug out some paper from the back of their car and decided to make art with whatever natural resources they could find. They used mostly dirt, twigs, and berries, but the resulting art was good enough that they were able to sell it for cash and continue on their way.

Although this story is just a snapshot of a moment from Shelly’s life, it captures who she is as a person—her willingness to dive into life with unbridled trust that everything will work out. “My whole life I think I’ve just had my mouth wide open at what I’ve experienced and seen,” she said. “Life is amazing, and it is what you make of it, and I want the rest of mine to be awesome!”

When Shelly had satisfied her appetite for travel, she decided to return to Louisiana Tech, this time as an art major. She earned her Bachelor of Fine Arts with an emphasis in 3-D design in 2002 and said, “I feel like I had the best of the best teachers.” At the time, the art department faculty at Tech included Kevin Kennedy, Peter Jones, Robert Berguson, Charlie Meeds, and Edwin Pinkston. Shelly compared the group to the Rat Pack and credits them not only with inspiring her and giving her the technical skills she needed but also with teaching her about the history and meaning of art.

After graduation, Shelly wasn’t sure how to proceed professionally, but she wasn’t ready to stop learning. In fact, she considers herself a perpetual student, and at the time, her penchant for learning led her to a workshop with renowned sculpture artist Patrick Dougherty at Anderson Ranch in Snowmass Village, Colorado. According to Shelly, she’s the type to sign up for opportunities that sound great without really thinking about the logistics. When she got to Snowmass, she found that the other students had made lodging arrangements at the ranch, but space was limited, and they were fully booked. As a result, she was forced to camp in the woods nearby. Still, it was a great experience, perhaps even better because she was surrounded by nature. Shelly said the workshop was a way of testing herself and confirming that she could take art seriously, but she still didn’t have a plan for how to proceed afterward.

At the time, her mom, being practical, suggested that she expand her fine arts education by learning some decorative painting and faux effects skills. Shelly was game, and the two of them traveled to New York to learn these skills together. Afterward, they founded Great Walls Artistic and Decorative Painting, and they’ve worked together on a lot of projects since, including some of the finishes at Squire Creek Country Club in Choudrant, Louisiana, and the restoration of the Vantage building, which was built as the Virginia Hotel in the 1920s in downtown Monroe.

According to Shelly, faux techniques and decorative painting include a variety of finishes from plasters and glazes to numerous textures and marbling, and she’s always learning about new methods and new media. In fact, she’s been to trainings in Austin, Atlanta, Dallas, Jackson, and New York, and her most recent training involved a new, “green” product that she said is so safe you could eat it.

With all this special training and years of experience, Shelly can make a backsplash look like granite or make wood look like copper. The possibilities are endless. In a sense, Shelly’s a magician—an illusionist—but she tends to think of what she does more as alchemy.

“I love experimenting with everything,” she said, “and mixing things that are not supposed to be mixed together,” but she added, “It’s also about turning something not as valuable into something more valuable.” And this idea carries over into her fine art as well.

Working in decorative painting requires a lot of problem solving and trying different things to get the desired look. But more times than not, Shelly discovers something she can use in her other art. Although decorative painting is more of a “job” and fine art painting is more personal, the creative processes overlap and inform each other in surprising ways. “I’m always open to trying everything,” she said. “I wanna learn everything and know everything, but I want to experience it on my own.” Sometimes when she combines certain media they need time to react, but afterward, she said, “It’s like opening a present.”

Experiencing these surprises alongside her mom over the last several years has also been a special kind of gift. Although her mom has stepped back from painting recently, Shelly continues to carry on their work. “It’s my bread and butter,” she said, “and this [fine art] is like the icing on the cake.” It wasn’t until three years ago that she decided to take the leap and become a full-time professional artist, making fine art and meeting clients’ decorating needs with art as well.

For the six years prior, Shelly taught at the Montessori School of Ruston, focused on being a mom, and worked as a decorative painter with her mom, but she didn’t do much painting for herself. Some of those years were especially hard for personal reasons, but she said she couldn’t be more thankful for the “gift that came out of it.” Shelly firmly believes that lessons turn into blessings, and said, “I try to be grateful for everything that is happening in my life at the moment.”

Since deciding to focus on her art, Shelly has felt a renewed sense of purpose. “This has always been my purpose and my passion,” she said, but she put it aside for a time and had to rediscover it. She believes everyone has a gift and that it’s our job to figure out what it is. “God put me here to be an artist,” she said, “and I’m making it. It’s better than the American dream. My work is my church, my meditation, and my life experience.”

To commemorate the changes she’s undergone in the last few years, Shelly has a tattoo of a phoenix rising from the ashes on her arm. “I’ve transformed,” she said. “I went through metamorphosis, and now I feel like my wings are open. I can’t believe I’m doing this for a living.” In a sense, making art has brought her back to life.

Throughout the transformation, Shelly has looked to the words of some of the most inspirational figures of our time for support and advice, including Dr. Wayne Dyer and Steve Jobs. According to Shelly, Dyer helped her realize that life is a choice. He said, “You’ll seldom experience regret for anything that you’ve done. It is what you haven’t done that will torment you. The message, therefore, is clear. Do it! Develop an appreciation for the present moment. Seize every second of your life and savor it.” For Shelly, everything hinged on the moment Dyer convinced her to stop wasting her time and to choose happiness in the face of hardship.

“Staying positive through the hard stuff is a challenge,” she said, “but I’m working on that all the time. I like challenging myself.” Although this lesson is a great life lesson, it also plays a role in Shelly’s art. As an artist, she’s never complacent and refuses to allow her work to be confined to a single style or category. “It has become more complex as my life has,” she said, “and everything is really different because I’m always working in the moment.”

Shelly also makes it a point to surround herself with like-minded people. She is part of a co-op of women artists who meet once a week to work on projects together. They meet at Fringe in Ruston, Louisiana, and in addition to Shelly, the co-op includes Abigail Edwards, Annie Richardson, Beth Holland, Danni Jones, Kate Hilburn, Laura Lewis, Patricia Jones, and Maggie Jones Boudreaux. As a group, they challenge and support each other. Shelly said that together the women and Fringe are like a sanctuary—a safe place to learn, create, grow, and discuss while living in the moment.

Shelly’s in-the-moment mindset also means that she’s always on the lookout for inspiration, and she’s just as likely to find it in a song lyric or a walk in nature as she is to find it in on the side of the road or in a storm gutter. Nothing is off limits. “My life is eclectic. I love it all,” she said. “Everything in my life is like that. If you’re open to receiving, everything can come in. It’s there. You just have to let it happen.”

Shelly is also a Christian. She strives to follow Christ’s example and likes to listen to other voices of our time to support herself personally and spiritually. She believes in the power of love and the Law of Attraction. “What you put in is what you get back,” she said. She has a lot of love to give and wants to receive it back. One of the ways she shares her love with the world is through her painting. She pours love into every one and said she never paints while angry.

In this sense, her work is truly a labor of love. Steve Jobs said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.” He encouraged people to continue searching for the work that fulfills them until they find it, and he was confident we would all know it when we did. Shelly certainly did.

“Being able to use my art as a tool to heal, to transform, to grow is the greatest gift that my art gives me,” she said. “To be free to explore on that blank canvas is total freedom. It’s wide open. You can do anything.”