High Art, Plastic, and Hats: Ron Shelton

Ron Shelton, Surgery Causeway, chalk on slate drawing, 54” x 48”

Multi-media artist Ron Shelton’s work is currently installed at 78th Street Studios (our plastic world, as part of CAN Triennial) and Lakewood Family Health Center (Figures in the Solstice Steppers). He talks about TV, colors, Tidy Cats, plastics, his commentary on the Midwest and why his work sometimes disappears.

JI:  Tell me about High Art Fridays. What was the impetus for that?

RS:  High Art Fridays has been a huge life-changer for me. This project started in December of 2013 on my personal Facebook page. Every Thursday night, I would peruse Pinterest and collect random contemporary artworks in both two- and three-dimension and assemble a virtual gallery exhibition. I started numbering each show. Hence, the name High Art Fridays began, for the work I collected was referred to as “high art.” HAF now has over 1,800 members from around the world. In 2016, we became a nonprofit organization. Things are moving slow and steady, operating on a very little budget at this time. We published our first HAF artist catalog in 2018, which featured twelve artists from eleven countries.

I hear tell of your work with ice, and I have seen your chalk (all mostly documented on your website). Why choose such ephemeral media? Do you reveal something you are otherwise afraid to let stand for all time?

Hmmm, not sure if I understand the portion of your question…. I’d like to understand this point; could be pivotal. Otherwise, this “ephemeral” element reflects how I feel about art. It was not until I started working in such a permanent element like plastic that a level of reality [was brought] to my existence. I have been making art and looking at art for so many years of my life. I see how we respond to art. As an artist in a consumer-driven society, we “sell” our souls—art—to survive. Something about that action “bastardizes” the purity of the purpose of art. Before the Western ideology took hold on the world, art served many purposes in the non-Western worlds. With a background in African art and archeology, I became aware of the importance of the art of antiquity. It was an expression that communicated a language, a roadmap for those people who created it—social, economic, spiritual and political roadmaps to their cultures. The western approach to art and art-making has taken a shift from this narrative. Today, artists’ lives are dictated by how commercial and “sale-able” their works are. To hang on the walls of a patron or gallery is the motivation. As much as I peruse, create, and curate art nowadays, I am confronted by how this medium has very little to enrich the world around us; [what] it does, if there is the aptitude, is to reflect the subconscious of the artist. Just as hyper-consumerism impacts the overwhelming plight of plastics, it also dictates to the artist. Sometimes I hate art for this fact, which it has made my ephemeral approach to my art-making more enticing. The only way for any of this to make sense is only if tells some kind of story that benefits [people] beyond the artist.

Ice “celts” prepared for sculptural installation by Ron Shelton

When I was referring to the ephemera of your ice and chalk, I think a lot of creatives think of art as being timeless, and when I think of work that is designed to disappear, I wonder if that is the artist wrestling with things they’d rather not lay bare for lengthy contemplation. Like when poets set their poems on fire. I wonder if that kind of art is for us or the artist.

Hmmm…nice point. In my exploration of ice and chalk, it is more an expression of “letting go,” and not being attached to something. As “precious” as I view my creations, I see this medium as a release. There is nothing in my conscious self that I am trying to avoid or wrestling with. But my subconscious—there may be a different story.

With “our plastic world,” it feels as if it is in motion and reaching into my apathy—I give no fucks about the environment—as it floats, and reaching downward to pull me into it, which made me kinda thoughtful. Did you want me to feel as if I was looking up into my destiny?

As a participant of the space, this piece, for me, engulfs the viewer, drawing them in. As an observer, one is watching a procession of plastic cylinders moving through this, the space of the stairwell.

I really love the whimsy of the “steppers” for the Solstice Steps exhibit. Who were they modeled after?

I don’t know what I was thinking when I took on this project. I was already in the studio working on “our plastic world.” I continued to focus on plastic with the concentration of yellow. The final cylinder of “our plastic world” is when the yellow plastic took shape for my community outreach project of bringing awareness to the community. The names I gave these two were “mask” and “alien.” The one with the “African-style motif” was a no-brainer. The other has humanoid, insect-like anatomy.

Yellow is a recurring theme in your work. Is that a weird observation?

Actually, it is a very good observation. The color yellow has had a special presence in my work which spans over twenty years. I am not sure I can articulate what this means for me, only that it brings a static energy to my work. It can represent an electric charge is true in “moon dance at Oxtotitlan.” Today, with my current work with plastic, yellow has taken on a different meaning. I have been exploring the devastation that plastics is causing on our global landscape, yet very few societies are taking this matter seriously. High Art Fridays is undergoing a campaign featuring artists around the world who are using this medium as a means to bring awareness to their communities. I am currently collecting yellow plastics for my next installation project. This time, yellow has a significant meaning that represents caution and/or warning.

I was almost thinking your choice to use plastics was a commentary on the Midwest.

It is a commentary on the Midwest, but more importantly it addresses a larger global audience. Countries around the planet are just starting to rethink plastics and how to address it. As of January 2018, China is no longer accepting the large barges of [American] waste. So, now, all the plastic and garbage we were shipping off to China stays put in our own back yard. Now, what [do] we think about the plastics we put in recycling bins [that] will most likely end up in landfills? Five African countries have banned the use of plastic bags and many other countries—[America] not included—have started to ban single-use plastic items. We in the USA and Northeast Ohio seem to be clueless about this epidemic and continue to “double bag” plastic bags at Marc’s, Giant Eagle and other supermarkets. One of the major sources for my plastics for the installation projects this summer were the laundry detergent bottles. Every week, I make my rounds to several laundromats in my area and collect these containers, clean them, cut them into three-by-three-inch tiles and weave them together, creating large plastic mosaic tapestries.

Unless it’s a t-shirt, wearable art seems fraught and challenging. Are all your Reshats meant to be worn?

Of course my hats are to be worn. I have been selling my hat around the world for over eight years. Business is slow, but it is steady. I don’t do much marketing, just via my website, eBay and Etsy. I have designed hats locally for Beck Center, Cleveland Public Theatre and Cleveland Play House. I co-produced a play in 2011 for Cleveland Play House Fusion Fest, with dancer/choreographer, Lisa Lock. Also in 2011, I was commissioned to create two baby Nudu hats for two episodes of [the] FOX [tv show] Bones. I have shown my hats and other wearable arts at the Columbus Museum of Art, Cleveland Museum of Art and I have participated in several Cleveland Fashion Weeks. My duct tape hat won second place in 2015 Cleveland Fashion Week. In 2016, I did a talk tour at Cleveland Museum of Art on “Men in Hats,” for Art Bites. In 2018, I designed the hats for the music group Mourning [A] BLKstar’s dance/music MIX performance at the CMA.

What can we look forward to from you?

I will continue with my multimedia artistic expression, which is almost becoming seasonal. Just finished a busy hat-making period, now I am focusing on several funding projects which will include the continuation of “our plastic world.” I have been collecting yellow polyethylene shavings, which I now have four large bags full of, and a dozen or so 32-ounce Tidy Cats litter pails which are the major components for my upcoming installation project. Will Brown [of] MOCA made a recent studio visit and was particularly interested in the HAF art cap exchange project, which I have on display in my studio space. This project is ongoing and getting participation from artists around the globe. It is my goal to eventually show this collection in a gallery, but I also plan to produce an art cap book. Now, as the intermittent cold/winter season is upon us, I am planning out my courtyard ice installation project. I have my first batch of “celts” in the freezer. I need to move to a colder climate or check out an art residency program in Greenland. [Also,] working on a new chalk-on-slate project.

Tell me more about the Tidy Cats installation. What is it about? Where will it be and when?

The bright yellow Tidy Cats installation is a continuation of my “yellow,” the symbol to bring community awareness. The Tidy Cats containers are a component for this segment of “our plastic world.” These 32-pound, wonderfully designed with thick, durable polyethylene containers. A colorful plastic air tight lid is provided and ergonomically sensitive handles. These have very high collectability. I have collected 21 containers from one patron who apparently is a “cat lady.” These containers are dissected in a variety of geometric shapes from three-by-three-inch tiles to trapezoidal shapes in a variety of sizes.

Who are the “Celts” you refer to?

The term “celt” is derived from one of the [prehistoric] Olmec’s massive offerings. The celt was an elongated stone structure in one in these offerings. My elongated ice forms mimic the celt of the Olmec.

What can you tell me about your next chalk project? Where and when will it be? What inspired it?

I am currently working on a chalk project. Each one typically begins with my poem or phrase. Even though it is ephemeral it is treated very delicately and in stages. A chalk project usually stays on the board between six to twelve months.

Do you have plans to move your ephemeral work beyond the bounds of your apartment building?

It would be great to have either component as part of an installation concept. I would be more inclined to take ice to another location. The only problem is the weather: not cold enough, long enough. I prefer a colder region where I could have two months of uninterrupted snow/cold climate.

Is Brown’s visit the precursor to a solo show at MOCA, or will you be part of another show?

I am not sure. Will Brown did inform me that his visit may not lead to an exhibition but told me they have many workshops and special programming projects at MOCA.