Deep Down Dynasty: Shelley Hesse’s Artistic Lineage

Featured on Anthropologie's a Blog February of 2016 - 

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 collaboratorShelley 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.

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