The Seasons of Dorothy Shelby

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Dorothy Shelby uses her art to connect with people.
Dorothy Shelby uses her art to connect with people, spread joy and share her faith. Photo by Anna Spencer Morse, Grace Photography
Dorothy Shelby primitive artist is also a musician
Dorothy Shelby is an artist, a musician, a pastor and a caregiver. Now is her season.

To every thing there is a season, and a time to every purpose under the heaven.
Ecclesiastes 3:1 (KJV)

Dorothy Shelby is an artist, a musician, a pastor and a caregiver. She is 70 years old. Now is her season.

“I know God loves me, and I’m on this earth to do His work,” Dorothy, a lifelong resident of Austin and Fayette counties, said. “This is my time and my season. Can’t nobody take that away from me.”

She is a self-taught artist whose primitive work is favorably compared to Clementine Hunter and is collected by patrons as far away as London. She paints scenes from her memories, backbreaking work and lean times lightened by childhood laughter, family, community and faith. Farm animals and wild critters hang alongside angels in her studio.

Unlike most artists’ studios, there are no windows. The space is illuminated by Dorothy’s bold acrylic palette and the unbridled power of creativity. Handmade rag dolls vie for space with hand-cut silhouettes and “recycled” flowers made by children from the church for a fundraiser.

Dorothy picked up a paintbrush for the first time in 2008.

“The Holy Spirit is my inspiration,” she said. “God holds my hand and guides the brush. I don’t know anything about painting, but I know a lot about believing. In my life, God comes first and art is second, but it’s real hard to separate the two.”

Dorothy Shelby's signature is a bold, acrylic palette.
Dorothy Shelby’s studio is illumined by her bold acrylic palette. The self-taught artist paints scenes inspired by her life, her faith and nature.

The Season of Childhood

Dorothy was born in 1944 in a little house within walking distance of the Cherry Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Industry. The church was founded and pastored by her great-grandfather Robert Ray. It was where her spiritual foundation was laid.

Dorothy was the youngest of eight children, five girls and three boys. Her oldest sister, Ethel Mae, is 17 years her senior. Her mother, Elnora Mary Mahon, was 40 when Dorothy was born.

“Because of their ages, my sister was like my momma and my momma was like my grandmother,” said Dorothy, who never knew her maternal grandmother because she died when Dorothy was a year old. “I was raised by strong women—cotton-picking, cord-wood-chopping, cane-cutting women.

My momma was a God-fearing, praying woman who was always there for us, an unwavering rock.”

“I was raised by strong women—cotton-picking, cord-wood-chopping, cane-cutting women.”

Her mother did whatever it took to make ends meet for the family. The children helped.  Dorothy’s father was present in the community but absent in the family. He liked fine clothes and fast cars, she said. He was a taker, not a giver, and often came by the family’s home and took the money they earned to support his flashy lifestyle.

“I didn’t hate my daddy, but I didn’t respect him,” Dorothy said. “If you’ll notice, he’s not in any of my paintings.”

By the time she was five, Dorothy was in the fields picking cotton with the rest of her family. She wasn’t old enough to be a real help, but she was too little to leave alone.

“I was a timid picker,” she said. “I probably didn’t pick 50 pounds a day, but I was there in the hot sun with them.”

By the time she was 12, she had taken over the family laundry, hauling water in buckets from the pump at the church up the hill to their yard where she boiled it over a fire and put the clothes through the old ringer washing machine.

“When I was little, I daydreamed and imagined things and captured them in my head,” Dorothy said. “If you got to daydreaming, that old wringer washing machine would eat your arm up. I had a wild imagination running everywhere, so I was always having to get my arm unstuck.”

Despite the work, there was plenty of time for play. Brothers and sisters and friends all gathered for games that involved sticks, rocks, old tires and whatever they could find. Money was short, but creativity was plentiful.

“I had an old tire named Suzy,” Dorothy said. “She was my car, and we traveled all over going to grand places.”

And there were the family stories. Dorothy’s mother made sure the children all knew where they came from. One familiar figure was Dorothy’s grandfather John Wesley Ray who was born a slave in 1860. He came to own 89 acres near Shelby and learned to speak German, so he could communicate with his landowning neighbors. His property had a lake that was used for huge communal baptisms. Before the baptisms, the congregants would seine the lake, so they could hold a big fish fry celebrating baptism day.

Artist Dorothy Shelby at Crusade for Souls
Artist and Pastor Dorothy Shelby standing in the sanctuary of the Crusade for Souls Church near Round Top.

“Church was a part of our lives,” Dorothy said. “God and our church family lifted us. We knew we were in this worldly life together.” Dorothy was baptized when she was 12.

After church on Sundays, all the African-American families would go to Alex’s Store for treats. Ice cream was a nickel, and the dried sausage hanging from the rafters was out of reach financially, but filching a piece was a tempting game for the older boys.

“We didn’t have any money; I think Mr. Alex and God forgave us,” Dorothy said smiling at the memory.

By the time Dorothy was in the upper grades at Mary Bethune Elementary School, her mother began to suffer small strokes that eventually left her bedridden. Dorothy and her sister Alice provided the home care. One would go to school in the morning while the other stayed home. At lunch they would reverse roles.

“God made sure I learned how to take care of people early on,” Dorothy said. “Serving others is how we best glorify Him.”

Taking care of her mother trumped education, and Dorothy never graduated. Instead she earned her GED when she was 31 years old.

“I love to learn,” Dorothy said. “But learning doesn’t just come from books.”

Dorothy Shelby in her home near Round Top
Dorothy Shelby finds her artistic inspiration and life’s work in her faith.

The Season of Faithful Service

Dorothy first saw Herbert Shelby, who would later become her husband, at a high school basketball game in Industry. He was on the visiting team. His play wasn’t the only thing that caught her attention.

“He was a handsome boy with beautiful eyes,” she said. Despite the youthful attraction, they didn’t meet until 1963 when they were both working in Houston. They will celebrate their 49th anniversary in 2015. Together they raised five children.

Both were called to ministry in 1980, Dorothy in April and Herbert in August.  In 1983, they founded a church, which survived three separate arson attempts. Local Baptist men helped them reconstruct each time.

“Folks in the nearby cafes just didn’t want to hear the singing, the preaching and the Word, so they tried to drive us out,” she said. “God prevailed though.”

The Shelbys eventually moved the church to La Grange and held services in the Masonic Hall for seven years before founding the Crusade for Souls Church in Walhalla. It’s located right next to their home.

The congregation is mixed: young and old, African-American, Hispanic and white. People come from as far away as Georgetown for the preaching, the singing and the fellowship. Dorothy is also a self-taught musician playing the keyboard and leading the singing. She also holds the pulpit. On a recent Sunday, she got up at 5 a.m. and prepared lunch for 50 to enjoy after services.

“Scripture says, ‘Greatest is the servant,’” Dorothy said. “I’m a doer not a watcher.”

Dorothy Shelby uses her art to connect with people.
Dorothy Shelby uses her art to connect with people, spread joy and share her faith.

The Season of Creativity and Recognition

Dorothy began painting seven years ago with supplies she picked up at Hobby Lobby.

“I didn’t know anything about painting,” she said. “It was just going to be something I enjoyed with my daughter-in-law.”

As she began to paint and show family and friends her work, it quickly became apparent that her art offered a point of connection.

“In the beginning, I saw that God was using my art to bring joy to people,” Dorothy said. “I didn’t know much about art, but I know about joy.”

“In the beginning, I saw that God was using my art to bring joy to people,” Dorothy said. “I didn’t know much about art, but I know about joy.”

At her first show, she didn’t sell a thing, but instead of being discouraged she came home and painted some more. She kept going to shows, and her work began to sell. She priced things on the fly: $25 for this one, $50 for that one. As the momentum built, she began seeking more established shows. In 2010, she and her granddaughter were en route to the mailbox to put a deposit on a booth space in North Cross, Ga. when she saw a sign posted outside a tent announcing vendor spaces at Round Top Vintage Market.

Dorothy asked her granddaughter to stop the car. They made their way into the tent where Dorothy asked, “Who’s in charge here?”

Someone pointed toward the back and said, “That little white-haired woman right there, but she’s in a bad mood.”

Dorothy said, “So am I.”

The little white-haired lady was Emma Lee Turney, founder of the Round Top Antiques Show. Dorothy asked if Emma Lee needed an artist. Emma Lee said she already had two. Dorothy asked, “Can’t you use three?” Emma Lee agreed, and a friendship was formed. Dorothy sold eight painting during the show and got excited about the prospect.

“It made me bold enough to share my work in other places,” Dorothy said.

In 2011, she was accepted into the Red River Revel in Shreveport, La. People began wandering into her booth and were obviously taken with her work. As they talked among themselves, it became clear they believed Dorothy had amassed a collection of Clementine Hunter’s work and was trying to pass it off as her own.

“At first all that talk about Clementine Hunter made me feel good, but then it made me mad,” Dorothy said. “I told them, ‘I’m not coming all this way to pass myself off as Clementine Hunter. My name is Dorothy Shelby. I’m an artist from Round Top, Texas, and I started painting before I even knew who Clementine Hunter was.’”

In four days she sold 33 paintings, more than any other artist in the show.

During the opening weekend of her recent show at Round Top’s Orchid Tree Park and Gallery, Dorothy sold 15 paintings including one to a local couple. The purchaser, who was so moved by the image she became teary eyed as they completed the transaction, said, “Dorothy, if I had enough money I’d buy every one.”

It’s a common response.

Dorothy said, “I give God the credit and the glory for these paintings. They’re His not mine. He just keeps delivering blessings through my art.”

Another woman who attended the recent Orchid Tree show is now working to secure Dorothy an invitation to appear on Good Morning America. Dorothy is praying about getting on a plane and traveling to New York City. She’s had a vision about interior designers using her work and her colors as the theme for beautiful homes and believes a television appearance might be the avenue to make that a reality.

“In my vision I heard someone say, ‘Shake her hand. She’s going to be a millionaire,’” Dorothy said. “If God makes that come to pass, I’ll fix up my house some, clean up my yard and help people. I’m not trying to get more than I got.”

She continued, “When I lift my arm to paint, I’m a vessel. When I open my mouth to speak, I’m a vessel. When I extend my hand in friendship, I’m a vessel. I try to live my life as a vessel of God’s love and His creative spirit. I’m richly blessed.”

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by Lorie Woodward Cantu
photos by Anna Spencer Morse, Grace Photography