These days Shelley Smith spends most of her time welding oil drums into wearable art on the Redneck Riviera, in the little Gulf shore Alabama town of Perdido Beach, where the biggest fashion statement, she says, is a pair of flip–flops.
However, Savannah remembers Shelley best as the impossibly glamorous former owner of Sol and Eos restaurants, and before that as proprietor of one of Savannah’s first truly happening counterculture nightspots, Venus de Milo.
Before PBR and ironic sideburns became common currency downtown, Venus combined an anything–goes stripper chic with a refined wine–bar atmosphere to create one of the first safe havens for Savannah’s artsy partiers, all in one of MLK Boulevard’s first successful repurposed buildings.
Gone from the Savannah scene for three years, Shelley returns this weekend for a “three–day whirlwind” reunion tour/art extravaganza, which includes a fashion show at the Jinx, an art show at Southern Pines, and the sold–out Tour d’Epicure on Sunday.
What are these pieces made of?
Shelley Smith: It’s all recycled 55–gallon oil drums. I just kind of make whatever I see, so compared to what I did in the restaurant and bar scene in Savannah, it’s definitely a different direction! But in a way it’s not so far off from the days when I had Venus de Milo — this is also kind of outrageous.
I don’t buy any metal at all, so if there’s any color in the pieces it’s from the color of the barrels I use. People are always bringing me barrels now — I’ve got red oil barrels, lime green oil barrels, teal, bright blue. You’d be surprised how many colors oil barrels come in. When somebody brings me a new barrel it’s like giving me a new crayon.
Why welding? Why metals?
Shelley Smith: I learned to weld a little bit in college, but I was a philosophy major, not an artist. When I started doing this, people here would come up and go, oh do you know the work of so–and–so? I don’t even pretend. I just go blank and say, “Nope.’" For the most part don’t have any real outside influence other than what I come up with in my head.
Why not just do the show there in Alabama?
Shelley Smith: I did a solo show for the Mobile Arts Council, which went really well. But I lived in Savannah 16 years. I want to come back to what I call home — I’m not from Savannah. but I lived there almost as long as I lived in my home town. If I’m doing a show that’s quote/unquote a “dress show,” with models, I’m going to do something a little avant–garde. There’s more of an outrageousness in Savannah than where I am now — you can do something a little crazy and off–kilter.
You were in the forefront of the movement to make Savannah a happening place for hip small businesses. It’s bittersweet and ironic that so much is going on here now, and you’re gone.
Shelley Smith: Every time I go on Facebook I get a taste of that! There are so many new, fresh restaurants there. It’s inevitable things are going to change. Venus became Rogue Water, and somebody told me recently one of the bartenders who used to work for me bought Rogue Water. In a way that’s why I also want to come back. Just like the town, I’ve changed, but I really do keep up with some of these people.
And likewise I really want them to see what I’m doing now, not for vanity reasons but because it’s refreshing to reinvent yourself at age 41. There are a lot of people who really do only know me as the girl who owned Venus de Milo and those restaurants. And whatever interesting rumors I’ve created here and there (laughs).
I don’t know if the chains are affecting the personality of downtown. When I left there wasn’t a McDonald’s on Broughton Street. People always said, Charleston’s sort of neat and clean and Savannah has a kind of grittier reputation.
I’m not certain how much of that description is appropriate anymore.
Why is the fashion show at the Jinx?
Shelley Smith: I needed sort of a stage feel, something dramatic, something dynamic and different from your typical art gallery. At the same time, I want people to see some of the more decorative pieces I make. That’s why I’m doing the reception the day after, at Southern Pine, so people can see what I do in a more quiet environment with more lighting.
Artists who work with metal are, um, kind of different. It’s dangerous!
Shelley Smith: I almost electrocuted my damn self today (laughs). It was raining and my gloves were wet and I grabbed my welder, and thank God the breaker tripped!
Most of the time I walk around in greasy Carhardts, steel–toed boots, and a welding helmet and crappy gloves. I like being able to have burns, cuts, and bruises, and yet I’ll go out and strap on a pair of stilettos and people will say, wow, you don’t look like the same person I saw earlier.
I guess there’s still a little bit of Venus and Savannah in me.
HEAVY METAL: TALES OF A VENGEFUL HAMMER; wearable art by Shelley Smith
Fashion show Fri. Feb. 22 at the Jinx; doors open 5 p.m., show 6:30 p.m.
Art Show Sat. Feb. 23 5:30-7:30pm. at Southern Pine, 616 E. 35th St.
Cost: Donations accepted for America’s Second Harvest