Unlike much of the United States, New Orleans, Louisiana is tucked within a steamy sliver of the subtropical climate zone. Parrots perch on power lines. Moss-draped live oaks shade the streets, while backyards and bayous teem with everything from fluttering dragonflies to meandering alligators. And its homes are full of families like that of artist—and longtime Anthropologie collaborator—Shelley Hesse, for whom this zoological wonderland is a birthright.
Shelley has always called New Orleans home, like her mother Peggy and her grandmother Adel before her. Their family tree, much like those live oaks, is firmly rooted here. And within their tribe, creativity is as common a trait as bright eyes and soft Southern lilts, all of which were on display when we visited the trio in Shelley’s Old Metairie home.
Adel’s talents manifested in the interior design and decorating realm, while Peggy led her own interior design and antiques business. Each has her own story about realizing Shelley’s inherent talent.
“One day, Shelley was staying with me,” Adel recalled. “And I come home to find her sitting cross-legged, spread out across my brand-new white carpet, doing watercolors.”
“But, how much got on the carpet?” Shelley interjected. “Not one speck! I will never live it down, that I dared to paint on Nanny Del’s white carpet.”
That white carpet stood in for art class easels in Shelley’s case, as she’s entirely self-taught. “Mom was taking classes in pastel, and she’s doing these landscapes, and they’re perfect,” said Shelley. “So I went in one day and just started grabbing pastels and fooling around with them. I was using it like a stain, mushing it in and pulling it off rather than caking it on in thick layers like you’re supposed to. And Mom says, ‘That’s not how you do it, that’s not how you use a pastel.’ I’m like, ‘That’s how I use it!’’’
“The funny thing is,” she continued, “that became the first stuff that I sold.”
Peggy nodded in agreement. “I told her, absolutely never take a single class because what you have is so unique. They’ll dilute it, they’ll try to change it, they’ll try to make it look like some other type of art—trust your eye.”
Over the course of her career, Shelley has used that eye to develop a signature style. Her paintings offer viewers a mythic window onto her florid surroundings, depicting both real and imagined wildlife in dreamlike detail. And they loom large—five, six feet or more of gouache, pastel and watercolor scenery.
“This huge scale only happened after I had Louisa and Graham,” said Shelley, referring to her two-year-old twins. “Everything got so magnified, what I felt about nature, what I felt about the world. Before it was just little birds—now, there are cheetahs, alligators. Everything quadrupled in size,” she noted.
“Shelley’s art is the art of reduction,” said Peggy. “She has a vision of something, and she takes away every single thing that’s extraneous to the essential vision, so that whatever is left is perfectly expressing that essential image.”
“There’s a certain distinction in her style, in the way she portrays nature. And I love her use of color,” added Adel.
Shelley’s home, too, is a work of art. The space is immaculate in a way that invites rather than intimidates. Every detail, from the tiger-print pillows to the marble obelisks, seems carefully considered, never overwrought. And then, of course, there are the paintings. Against the creamy backdrop of the walls, they surge to life.
Case in point: In a recently finished piece which hangs in her home, an enormous albino alligator, complete with intricately textured scales along its back and tail, slinks across a marshy backdrop in dazzling tone-on-tone detail.
Shelley painted this, like all others, in her tidy backyard studio, surrounded by floor-to-ceiling windows that sit open most days. Within, among the canvases, huddles of paint tubes and splattered rags, there are curiosities: feathers tucked into glass jars, lipstick-kissed notes, tiny bowls filled with found objects. Here a fragile dragonfly, there a preserved ghost moth, each treasured for its detail. They are Shelley’s reference books, tiny encyclopedias of nature’s cleverness. They surround her workspace, accompanying her from start to finish.
“Once I start working on a piece, it reveals itself,” she said. “I don’t go in with a full map. I just start drawing, and it tells me what to draw. Any time I try to tell it what I want, it bucks,” she laughed. “So then, I follow.”
“It takes me a while to step away from a piece. As soon I can walk around it and look at it at every angle and feel happy about it, I get the most amazing feeling,” she continued. “It’s like they are the best part of who I am, and I just say ‘Thank you for coming out of me!’”
The parallel of the painting process to motherhood isn’t lost on Shelley, who views the birth of Louisa and Graham as the Big Bang of her artistic development. Her children, her paintings—they reflect h er progression in Technicolor.
“It’s always a process. Every piece is different, I start over every single time,” Shelley said. “I have to struggle to feel satisfied and fulfilled. Because if it’s easy, it’s a sign that you’re not evolving.”
Discovering her skill, soldiering through the struggle and nurturing her painting career led to an evolution of both talent and soul. “Painting makes me really happy—no, happy is the wrong word. Before I had my artwork, I was always a happy, grateful, loving-life kind of girl, but there was just a little piece that wasn’t there. Now, I feel whole.”
“Painting is addicting, it really is.” Peggy added. “You have no concept of time passing, you can just paint for hours and hours. It’s bliss.”
“Bliss! The word is bliss, that’s it,” Shelley grinned.
Carrying on a tradition of strong creative women, mastering her art and craft, growing where she’s planted—all with her own children in tow. Bliss, indeed.