Sullivan Brothers

THIS SPRING  folk artist Mary Michael Shelley is again at her booth at the Ithaca’s Farmers’ Market at Steamboat Landing, creating scenes of rural America. As you pass by, you can see her tap away with her mallet at a chisel or dig her woodcarving knife into a square of white pine. If you stand there a while, you’ll see figures grow out of the surface before your eyes. As their outlines deepen, the bodies become solid, gathering energy with each tap as if being prodded into action. Their features become sharp; eyes open, smiles widen. A landscape emerges, and soon the scene becomes familiar – a place you’ve always lived, or perhaps just wished you had. 

Over the booth hang completed bas-reliefs, brightly painted in acrylics, appearing like a row of windows onto a world of primary colors where country people work and play hard, and animals mostly take it easy. 

Raised on a dairy farm in Pennsylvania, Shelley has produced popular series of barnyard scenes that often feature self-satisfied milk-cows poking their noses over wooden fence posts (or outside the picture frames). Often a farmer or two is standing by in muddy boots beneath a sky dappled with clouds that might be floating white islands rising from a sparkly blue sea. Sometimes the trees resemble the sprouts of broccoli for sale in a nearby booth, branches entwined, leaves hardened to green florets. 

Another subject Mary likes is diners, and especially the hard-working, cheerful waitresses who work in them. Women in aprons lean over counters, serve customers in flannel shirts and feed-caps, scrub the grill, prop up a jukebox against a crazily leaning wall. “Smile Though Your Feet Hurt” is the motto of some of some of these scenes. The folks cooking and eating the food have, at first glace, cartoon-like features; step closer, though, and you’ll see both loneliness and gratitude in the face of a man leaning over a plate of eggs, and satisfaction in the eyes of a grill-cook who stands back to watch him eat. 

“When my kids were young, we loved going to the Ithaca Diner for milk shakes,” Shelley said, recalling one inspiration for this series. “It was a fun place – lots of people to watch.” 

The artist has recently taken up sailing, so she’s embarked on a series of boating scenes in which Cayuga Lake is rippling in the sun. Pets are sometimes aboard, and in a series of camping scenes, dogs that resemble Mary’s own corgis gather around a campfire howling. 

Cats, too, enjoy themselves, sometimes dancing in formation for their dinners behind their bowls or gazing up with a certain slyness at the unseen human. The occasional snake finds his way into some of Mary’s woodcarvings, often in the company of Adam and Eve and a few blossoming plants. But her serpent is more a co-conspirator than a tempter. All three rotund characters look as if they’ve happily stuffed themselves with plenty of apples and other garden produce, probably organic like the wares at the Farmers Market. 

Mary’s work can also be seen at the Women’s Rights National Historic Park in Seneca Falls, and the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. Her bas-reliefs are in the collections of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York City, the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, and the American Museum in Bath, England, as well as in galleries in France and Japan. In 1990, one of her painted carvings appeared in an Absolut Vodka magazine advertisement: a giant silvery bottle seemed to sprout up from a barnyard surrounded by square-dancers and some especially contented-looking cows. 

Her work hangs in many homes in Tompkins County, as well. A lot of it is bought by curious passers-by at the Farmers’ Market and at open-studio weekends she hosts with other artists on the Greater Ithaca Art Trail. Bas-relief painted scenes sell from $390 up to about $4500, with glicée prints for $50 and postcards for 50¢. 

Mary Michael Shelley has been working and exhibiting here for over twenty-five years. Her folk art continues to impress viewers, here and farther afield, with its freshness and quirky originality. 

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