On a warm and sunny fall day, visual artist and educator Madelaine Shellaby leads a visitor on a tour of her new home. Since May she and her partner, Ed Dancona, have been living in an apartment in the barn at Hortulus Farm, a 100-acre landscaped utopia in Newtown, Pennsylvania, that operates as a nursery and a bucolic wedding venue. Here Shellaby enjoys walking with her dog, sipping wine on her back deck, or taking in the view.
Having had her own garden of earthly delights during the 25 years she lived in Belle Mead, Shellaby enjoys the new hands-off approach. There’s no need to week or prune the butterfly garden, crab apple allee, wild meadows and woods — staff members keep the property, with its pond and its gazebo, in tip-top shape. It’s hard to keep up the brisk pace set by the 73-year-old as we walk by an arbor imported from Paris covered with trumpet vine and honeysuckle, a pool with a fountain, benches that evoke Giverny, a raised stone terrace
There are horses and sheep, chickens and peacocks, a dovecote, and a purple martin house. The vegetable garden still offers late-season herbs, dandelion and mustard greens, and kohlrabi. Since retiring as art and photography teacher and gallery director from Stuart County Day School where she worked from 1986 to 2012, Shellaby has lived in seven places, including last year on the campus of the Peddie School, where she filled in for an art teacher on leave. This is the first year since retiring in which she can devote herself to making art full time — sort of.
She has two works in the exhibition “DrawCutShootPrintAssemble” at the Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie through January 14, and will be in a three-artist show at Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid Gallery, “Adaption: An Exploration of Scale,” February 12 through March 8, that includes her contemporary vanitas — still lifes that exemplify mortality, with dying parts. “Adaption” will examine “microscopic cell photography, biological fantasies and botanical imagery from . . . artists Carrie Norin, Lindsay Feuer, and Madelaine Shellaby,” writes curator Jody Erdman. “Madelaine’s digital photographs create invented stories by combining exotic organic forms. Hybrid fruits and flowers are displaced and replaced sometimes adding collage, drawing or painting to her botanical imagery.”
Which is why it makes so much sense that Shellaby is enjoying life in a botanic paradise.
Photographic prints of invented plant life have been a staple of her work since her years raising three children, teaching, and gardening an acre and a half in Belle Mead. (Side note: The Belle Mead garden was also home to the folly designed and built for Writers Block by architect Kevin Wilkes —Shellaby purchased it at auction.)
For the invented botanicals, Shellaby would scan plant material and use the digital darkroom to create plants that don’t exist, at a time “when biotech firms were fussing with genes,” she says. “I was fascinated with inventing plants. There can be flowers of evil in the midst of beauty, and people see the beauty, not the evil. We surround ourselves with beauty and comfort, but beautiful flowers, though a gardener’s dream, can be toxic.”
Shellaby might take berries from one tree and combine it with the stem from another plant — say, a winged euonymus — and hang roots, still clinging to soil, from another plant. She scans the plants using a black cloth to attain her “blackground” and may change the growth pattern of a hosta, or put a milkweed pod on another plant. Shellaby has perfected the technique so her inventions appear seamless — a viewer will believe.
Amid the florals and vases in her images we also see toy soldiers, soldiers jumping from helicopters, Rosy the Riveter, souvenirs. “It’s America the sham,” she says. “We’ve created good stuff and slammed the world with bad stuff.”
The works on view at Ellarslie are from Shellaby’s Stone Stories, an archive that includes an artist’s book with stories about collected stones. Every stone has a story to tell, she says, and almost every person has a stone story, giving power to an inanimate object. Each page of the book has an image and a story worded tightly as a poem. One of the books, in an edition of 10, was in an exhibition at the Hunterdon Museum several years ago. Both works at Ellarslie are graphite on paper.
“California Jizo Garden” is based on the Japanese tradition of honoring the lives of lost children in a garden inhabited by stones made in the image of the Bodhisatva Jizo, the Buddhist patron of children who die before their parents (Shellaby calls herself a practicing Buddhist). The stones are clothed in hand-sewn red garments that fade over time and are replaced. “Thus over time,” writes Shellaby, “a lovely range of colors is created across the garden, and with flowers and ferns present a welcome space for reflection and prayer.”
“Maybe a Moon Shining” is also a work of invented forms, with elements from the natural world — stones, plant parts, birds and feathers, as well as woven works and even a light bulb growing out of a stone. “This drawing was done in response to a poem by poet laureate Charles Simic,” she writes. Simic imagines what it might be like inside a stone, and Shellaby draws the possibilities. The work “was subsequently acquired by the Archive of Stone Stories,” which she describes as a result of her decades-long act of collecting stones, stories, and artwork and celebrating “the curious connection people have to stones. Stones are imbued with power not only to inspire poetry but to save and jeopardize lives, among other things.”
A ceramic head of “Charles Rokeby Rokham” represents a fictitious person who donated the stone collection to her stone archive. “He’s a confabulation of people I knew,” she says. “Charles was my grandfather’s first name. Rokeby is the name of the road on which I was born, and Rokham was an erudite lawyer friend of my parents. Charles Rokeby Rokham’s parents brought him up in France, and he was fascinated with questions about who created the Dolmens (Neolithic megaliths in central France) and had an interest in Eastern religion. He believed stones held psychological and spiritual entities and when he died he asked that his stone stories be put in the stone story museum. The museum’s collection includes a drawing of its benefactor when he was young.”
Shellaby was born in Waban, Massachusetts, then lived in New Jersey, Florida, and California, with a year in Peru and two years in Rio de Janeiro. Her mother, a pianist, taught French and Spanish, and her father was a political scientist, Latin American journalist, and editorial writer for the L.A. Times. She still has her father’s 16 mm camera that she experimented with in the 1970s. “He lived to stand on his head which he did though it embarrassed his children,” Shellaby says of her father. Her parents ultimately retired in Villefranche-sur-Mer, France, where they renovated an old convent.
She studied studio art at Scripps College in Claremont and earned an MFA at UC Berkeley. In 2011 Shellaby, along with Stuart colleague Anne Hoppenot, founded Konekte Princeton Haiti to improve the lives of children and their communities through educational Initiatives. She also curates the Art Times Two Gallery at the Princeton Spine and Brain Institute in West Windsor, where she is planning an exhibit on art and healing with the artists Anne Elliott, Shellie Jacobson, Maria Pisano, and Sarah Morejohn. It is titled “SUCCOR: Artists Find a Path through Crises” and scheduled to run February through August. And if her plate is not full enough, she is also apprenticing under Paul Smith, who runs the Framesmith Gallery in West Windsor. She describes him as a perfectionist.
Since retirement from Stuart, Shellaby has added ceramics to the media she works in and now that she is in Bucks County has been taking ceramic classes with Hopewell resident Debbie Reichard at Bucks County Community College. Flowers and plant material are finding their way into her clay forms. “I’ve always avoided the illustrative tradition of representing the real world,” she says. “I want to transmute the botanical form and turn it into my own composition of growth and abundance.”
DrawCutShootPrintAssemble, Trenton City Museum at Ellarslie, Cadwalader Park, Trenton. Through January 14. www.ellarslie.org.
Adaption: An Exploration of Scale, Princeton Day School’s Anne Reid Gallery, 650 Great Road. February 12 through March 8. www.pds.org/the-arts/anne-reid-gallery-exhibits.
SUCCOR: Artists Find a Path through Crises, Spine and Brain Institute, 731 Alexander Road, Suite 200, West Windsor. February through August. www.princetonbrainandspine.com.