We had the good fortune of connecting with Shelley Whiting and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Shelley, how do you think about risk?
My work revolves around mental health and religious themes which some people are uncomfortable with. I had a show at the Burton Barr library. I was unsure how to approach my show statement. I said “the work has some bipolar and religious elements.” My brother who is a community arts muralist based in Utah told me to write about that. I was like “Are you sure?” He said “The show is about yourself. Bring it all out.” Many local artists have complimented that I am not scared about letting it all out. I wouldn’t make art unless it was about my life and my complicated opinions about the issues in my life. My integrity is the most important. There are several times when I am doing a work about religion I wonder am I approaching the sacreligious? I am LDS.I usually think people who make sacrilegious art have a hateful vibe. My intention with my art is not to have that vibe. Recently I have done a series about my mother. My mom was saintly. She was close to the veil. In Mormon terms it means between earth and heaven. I wanted to make a painting about her by a curtain with faces coming from the veil. Instead I decided to have her wear the curtain. She wore her spirituality around her all the time. I found a letter where she talked about her death, before a doctor did. She also had people in her dreams asking her to baptize them for the Mormon practice of baptism for the dead.
Alright, so let’s move onto what keeps you busy professionally?
My art is about my introspective journey. As a freshman in high school my art teacher gave us the different intelligence survey. They had artistic, mathematical, and many others. I scored high on the introspective intelligence. At 15, I thought that was kind of lame. Being connected to your own feelings isn’t as cool as seeing in four dimensions or knowing several equations. But with my art I realize I have a unique outlook: I can sense the whimsical and light side of things but also the dark. Some of it is my mental illness but I also like adding fun elements to my work whether it’s the unique way I distorted a face or hams floating in the background. I approach every painting in a conceptual way. Caricature is the root of my style. In those paintings it’s important to capture the essence or character of a person. My large paintings are generally one or two big faces. I also have several paintings that have a million little spirit babies. Spirit babies are in Mormonism are babies who live before you live on earth. I love the ritualistic repetition and time that goes into the figures. The repetition is like a studious task. It’s not always easy to show your work. I’ve learned that my work isn’t one you’d display at open market. It needs to be displayed on wall and be observed I usually like to do solo shows but also like to participate in a public gallery setting too.
Let’s say your best friend was visiting the area and you wanted to show them the best time ever. Where would you take them? Give us a little itinerary – say it was a week long trip, where would you eat, drink, visit, hang out, etc.
I live in downtown Mesa and love the local restaurants especially South American restaurants like Republica Empanada and Que Chevere, a Venezuelan restaurant. Fruitlandia just opened. It has a really good drink with caramel shaved ice cream and Thrifty ice cream. My sister likes to crochet and do fiber works. She used to like to go to Fiber Factory that has closed. Now she goes to Tempe Yarn.
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
I’d love to give a shout out to the Art Awakenings. At 25 I has my first nervous breakdown and was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Being diagnosed wasn’t easy. I realized I was really mentally ill. It wasn’t an easy journey. With therapy and a lot of self-evaluation I was able to manage my mental health. First of all it is an incredible organization. They offer many different programs like clay, jewelry and also writing and music. Every day they have a lecture about self-help coping skills or positive thinking. I started showing my work in galleries in my late teens but lost the desire when my manic episodes became too heavy. The program gave me baby steps. Artists learn about art marketing and can make some income through their work. I started showing a few works in the gallery. Then I had my solo show and realized I had a cohesive and strong body of work. I could show in local art galleries again. Art Awakenings has a graduate program Warehouse 1005 where artists learn more about making their art more marketable and professional. My work definitely started selling a lot more after joining. Most of all I felt like I belong somewhere. I’ve always been kind of a loner and feel that I am accepted and secure with myself. Being mentally ill can make you a bit eccentric. I’ve learned that that’s okay.