Danielle Shelley is an artist living near Santa Fe, New Mexico. Her work includes geometric abstraction oil paintings, monotypes, and drawings. She is a founding member of the Lady Minimalists Tea Society, a collective of Northern New Mexico women artists who have an aesthetic relationship to minimalism as a core principle and who often show together.
Danielle brings a varied background to her practice of art, which began in 1993. She studied economics and history as an undergraduate and did graduate work in law, African history and anthropology, Middle Eastern history, and library and information science. She worked as a computer programmer, teacher, librarian, free-lance writer and editor. She also traveled widely and served in the Peace Corps in Ghana, West Africa.
Danielle notes that everywhere she went, she learned from art in its cultural context, whether in a Japanese temple or in the great museums of Europe. She says her experience as a Peace Corps volunteer in Ghana was particularly rich in influences: the geometric abstraction of African sculpture, the polyrhythms of West African music, and the color sensibility of modern African printed fabrics.
Danielle was raised in Texas and the San Francisco Bay Area, educated on the East and West Coasts and in London, and worked for many years in the Bay Area before moving to Santa Fe in 2006. From her new studio she can see over 50 miles on an average day.
Earth Measure Blues
a way of being in the world,
power to change the quality of attention.
shadow of perfection,
someplace to stand,
something to hang onto.
is subtle, ecstatic,
pure experience beyond self.
Geo means earth, metry is measurement.
Blues—the color of high desert sky,
of sacred turquoise,
the sound of lonely voices, horns,
sounds descended from wooden drums
in a forest night.
“Earth Measure Blues.” Shallow space
for push and pull, cut-in lines to follow,
curves to bring us back around.
Measure the blue earth.
The blues measures our earth.
Earth is the measure of the blues.
Earth measure blues.
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A more prosaic look at Earth Measure Blues
Color, and its power to move us and alter the quality of our attention, has obsessed me all my life. To my surprise, however, the jumping-off point for my current work was minimalist Donald Judd’s installation of 100 uncolored aluminum boxes at the Chinati Foundation in Marfa, Texas. Each a little different from all the others, Judd’s boxes made me aware of my own fascination with series of things in nature that are “almost the same but not quite”—mesas, aspens, New Mexico’s flat-bottomed clouds.
My initial response to Judd’s work was a group of multipanel paintings. In each one, as many as 25 small panels repeat the same geometric composition with minor changes in color and proportion. My use of geometric shapes is a response to historic minimalism, to my own life (my father was an architect), and to our difficult political and economic times: geometry gives me a solid place to stand as an artist. Memories of the polyrhythmic drumming of West Africa, where I was a Peace Corps volunteer, also contribute to this series. I discovered that the repetition of near-identical colors and shapes creates compelling visual and experiential polyrhythms.
Earth Measure Blues, my current series of oil paintings, evolved out of the multipanel works and explores visual polyrhythms in a different way. Several years ago I began making small collages by cutting up printed images of the earlier panels. These collages became studies for the new canvases, which are much larger than the panels and meant to be seen alone or in small groups. I have made over 150 collages so far, and the most recent also incorporate cut-up prints of earlier Earth Measure Blues paintings. This recursive collage-based process enables familiar shapes, lines, and colors to form an endless variety of new rhythms on canvas.
The name of the series comes from the Greek meaning for “geo-” (the earth) and “-metry” (the process of measuring). “Blues” alludes to the unique American musical form, with its African roots, which I often listen to while making collages and paintings. It also refers to the repetition of blue hues in the paintings and to the varying colors of the high desert sky I love to watch.
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Essay* by Danielle Shelley:
"We do art to be human"
For me, a painter, art provides a refuge from the harsh face history has turned on us, just as “making things” was my childhood refuge from an unhappy family. But that’s not saying much: artists will always make art for themselves and each other, even if times are bad (think the Abstract Expressionists before they were recognized.)
Far more important is that doing art is a way to touch others, to reinforce bonds of community—perhaps to create beauty that gives a few people a rest from their problems, or the energy to keep working to improve their own or others’ lives. Art can be a commitment to values that do not depend on a secure world.
I often think of the Italian Renaissance, a terrible period politically, when mercenary armies roamed Italy, ruling families poisoned each other, and plagues struck repeatedly—but also an age when extraordinary artistic creativity flourished. The Renaissance is a reminder that living a decent life is not entirely dependent on living in decent times: a reminder that the terrors of our time need not be totally consuming, that we can live with a connection to other eras and other people who sought meaning and beauty in the midst of turmoil and fear.
Art is a perpetually self-renewing source of energy: that is the best definition of art, as opposed to decoration or illustration, that I have ever found. We need that source of energy as we face this challenging political and economic world. And that need goes far beyond the visual arts; different people find energy in different places, so we need poetry, drama, music, architecture, dance, film, literature, just as much as painting.
Making art and seeking to create beauty are acts of faith in the future, in the survival of the values of humanism—faith that we will get through the threats facing us, the crumbling of the economic and political world we’ve known, the dying forests and rising seas due to climate change. Art demands recognition that human lives matter, that chaos can be transmuted into beauty and courage.
When I’m frightened by our times (as I often am), I sometimes picture the cave paintings of France and Spain, which may date back 32,000 years. We don’t know the states of mind of the artists who created beauty so early in our history. Perhaps they were celebrating successful hunts, with feelings of gratitude, or perhaps they were imploring the power that brought—or failed to bring—the animals they needed for survival. Perhaps they painted out of hunger and desperation. Either way, they went to a lot of trouble to make their paintings, paintings that speak to us across an enormous span of years. We can barely imagine their lives, but we respond to their creations and know they were creatures like us.
Art has the same importance in our threatening era that it had when the cave painters worked, or ancient Greek bards turned the slaughter of the Trojan War into poetry that survives to this day; when European craftsmen in gold and gems created beauty to praise their God in the dark ages after Rome fell, or twelfth-century artists of New Mexico’s Mimbres people painted whimsical animals and stunning abstract designs on their pottery; when young poets in the trenches of World War I wrote about the rendezvous with death that they knew awaited them, or painters during the Great Depression (some who would become famous, many who would be forgotten) created murals in American courthouses and post offices.
We make art—we turn to art as a source of the energy we need in good times and bad—because we’re human, and art is one of the essential things we do to be human.
* This essay was chosen as the winner in a 2009 essay contest held by Linda Durham Contemporary Art in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The topic was, “The importance of art in this challenging political and economic world,” and the winning essay was picked by a panel of art-world professionals: Timothy Rodgers, then chief curator of the New Mexico Museum of Art, and Jon Carver and Aline Brandauer Sloan, both arts writers and curators.
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Linda Whittenberg poem*
about Danielle's work
by Linda Whittenberg
Colors whisper to each other—
yellow-green to aquamarine, a particular pink
to the right gray, subtle conversations
like musical notes meant to convey—life is hard
but there is hope as long as quadrilaterals
riff on canvas, half-circles nod to squares,
lines drawn straight and true.
Orange because they love the heat, grow fat
and round, puffing up with sweet juiciness
that floods mouths, drips off chins,
stickies hands, exactly the way the harmonica
pours over old wounds, the way the bass guitar
makes you get up and dance even though
your feet are tired.
Green, its pushy ways,
how it comes before you are ready,
thrusting its songbirds, its lilacs.
Shameless, while you are still wedded
to winter, exactly as the beat-up clarinet,
borrowed drums, invade the bar,
ravage the one lonely drinker,
rousing his frozen heart.
Red, oh, yes—always mixing it up
with the Blues, going way back
to dreary mauves of servitude, blood
spilling onto Egypt’s cobblestones,
beleaguered Jews fleeing across Red waters.
Exactly as the song testifies—
where there is misery there will be mercy;
where there is Red there will be Blues.
Black, always Black, for origins,
for all its low-cut dresses,
the way it absconds all colors,
for its velvety depth, wicked secrets.
If one day there should be only black,
be assured, a radio somewhere will be playing—
four beats, bent notes, a gravelly voice,
mocking the dark.
* This poem was written as part of ViVO Contemporary gallery's 2015 collaborative project between the gallery's artists and a group of Santa Fe poets, Giving Voice to Image 3. To see the online book that resulted from this project, click here. (The printed version of the book can be purchased from Amazon.)
Poem © 2015 by Linda Whittenberg