Shelley Smith on the half shell

Oyster shell portrait of Martha Chapman by Shelley Smith
Shelley Smith in metal, flower and bone headdress

We’re all familiar with the Dos Equis advertising campaign featuring ‘the most interesting man in the world.’ 

Surely Shelley Smith may be his female counterpart: ‘the most interesting woman,’ or, at the very least, ‘the most creative woman’ in our world of Savannah!

Born and raised in the Mississippi Delta, Smith studied philosophy with a minor in anthropology and sociology at Rhodes College. Always drawn to photography and documentary work she then applied to, and was accepted into, the prestigious International Center of Photography in New York City, but funding made it more realistic to enroll in the master’s photography program at SCAD.   

After her time at SCAD, Smith used a small inheritance she received from her grandfather, a lifelong butcher for Piggly Wiggly, to purchase a building on Liberty Street and opened Athena Gallery (now home to The Book Lady). She describes the gallery as “a little ahead of its time. 

Things like ‘The Naked Show’ with full nudity were a little ambitious in 1996!”  She went on to open the infamous Venus De Milo wine bar and night club on Martin Luther King “back when nothing was on MLK. It was extremely blighted except for SCAD’s little photography building.” Following the sale of the building eight years later, Savannahians may remember the two wonderful restaurants she owned on Habersham Street – Sol and Eos. 

During these years in hospitality, Smith would have regular shows of her own and others’ work and today has transformed herself into a full-time metal artist, painter, writer, fire breather(!), wine aficionado, gourmet, photographer, social activist, and videographer (her social media followers were delighted when, during the lonely days of lockdown, she created the character of chain smoking, cocktail drinking Debra who had a hilarious running commentary on all things pandemic).

After discovering abandoned oil barrels on her father’s land in the Delta, Smith began cutting and welding the various scraps of metal to create cuffs, rings, necklaces, fantastical headdresses, platters, and life-size sculptures of deer, angels, and birds. Creating objects of beauty from abandoned things, ugly, and decrepit, her work has twice graced the cover of South Magazine and she has had numerous photo shoots of women empowered and fierce in her stunning armor-like wearable gowns.

No story about Smith would be complete without mentioning her incredible fundraising efforts and social conscience. The shows at Venus De Milo, Eos and Sol always contributed to charity, and subsequently she created the annual Tour D’Epicure, which has raised over $250,000 for the Kid’s Cafe of America’s Second Harvest of Coastal Georgia. Founded in memory of her newborn daughter Velouria, Tour D’Epicure combines wine and food tasting visits to various restaurants and sales of works by local artists. 

Recently Smith raised almost $3,000 for a friend in Haiti whose mother’s home was devastated in the last earthquake and started a GoFundMe to cover medical expenses for hospitality friend Rob Gitten.  Smith has made two visits to teach art and spend time with children at The Harmony House orphanage in Haiti, culminating in the publication of a book illustrated by the children entitled The Children’s Garden. While future trips to Haiti and Peru have been derailed due to Covid, Smith, inspired by her mother who at one time supervised a children’s emergency shelter, continues to do what she can to help the older children no longer at the orphanage who have no prospects and no homes. And locally she extends her advocacy efforts by serving as a CASA (court appointed child advocate) volunteer.

A strikingly beautiful woman, this passionate feminist turned 50 during the pandemic and decided to challenge herself to a monthly experience that would be outside her comfort zone. Thus ensued such adventures as a solo tent camping trip in North Carolina, swimming with rescue horses in Florida, and running her first 5K to benefit CASA. Earlier in the pandemic she took a motorcycle trip up the coast of California and inspired by her culinary experiences came home and created her own delicious goat cheese (as one does). This month’s 50th birthday challenge is to have her first ever mother-daughter art show, entitled ‘Saints and Sinners on the Half Shell’, which will be a fundraiser for Hospice Savannah’s healing arts and grief therapy programs.  

I meet Smith and her mother Martha Chapman in their cozy, art and pet-filled home, and we sit at their dining room table, now transformed into an oyster shell painting station while new kitten Cooper plays with the array of art supplies.  Chapman, a retired social worker and teacher who spent her life working with impoverished and at-risk youth, recently began decoupaging oyster shells and selling them as ornaments. Daughter Smith decided to go a step further and used her artistry to paint commissions – portraits of people, pets, and local landmarks. Her amazingly detailed and accomplished portraits have grown into a collection of 120 of Savannah’s most famous and infamous characters ranging from Johnny Mercer, Lady Chablis and Jane Fishman to Mayor Van Johnson and Ben Tucker. Each portrait will be paired with a more decorative shell created by Chapman and auctioned off during a show at Soho South Events on September 24, and subsequently displayed at Location Gallery.

 Smith recruited musicians to donate their talents during the party and is building a ‘selfie throne’ embellished with oyster shells and antlers. And, of course, her mixology skills were set to good use to create two very opposing cocktails: The refreshingly light Saint, comprised of prosecco, grapefruit and honey water, and the darker Sinner which she describes as, “like an Old Fashioned with a bit of coffee, orange, bourbon, The 1970, and a hint of cayenne to make it a little spicy!” 

‘Saints and Sinners on the Half Shell’, like Smith herself, promises to be fun, beautiful, and socially impactful.

Saints and Sinners: A Fundraiser for Hospice Savannah

‘Saints and Sinners on the Half Shell’ by Shelley Smith and Martha Chapman are hand-painted portraits on oyster shells of 120 of Savannah’s leaders, risk-takers, and beloved characters. The show premieres at Hospice Savannah’s Summer Nights Party on Friday, September 24 from 6 to 9:00 p.m. at Soho South Events, 12 West Liberty Street.  COVID protocols will be followed.

The party features Saints and Sinners cocktails, hors d’oeuvres, and music by Shena Verrett, Xulu Jones, Roger Moss, Kiah Polk, and the Anders Thomsen Trio. $40 tickets are available via Eventbrite at Hospice Savannah’s Facebook event page, or by contacting the Hospice Savannah Foundation at 912.629.1055 or Proceeds benefit the nonprofit’s music and massage therapy programs, and grief and loss services.

Location Gallery Show

Can’t attend the Summer Nights Party? Catch the art show when it moves to Location Gallery, 251 Bull Street, September 25 through October 15 with an artists’ reception on Saturday, October 9 from 1:00 to 6:00 p.m., and an artists’ talk at 2:00 p.m. 

Location Gallery’s motto is ‘building a better community one art show at a time,’ and curator Peter Roberts continues the tradition of helping Hospice Savannah’s fundraising through art sales. He says this show is “bright and colorful - much like the artist and the subject matter! Her cast of characters is pretty interesting - a real cross-section of Savannah – much like the patients that Hospice Savannah serves.”

About The Author

Beth Logan

I am originally from Portrush, Northern Ireland, and emigrated to San Francisco after attending the University of Belfast. My photographer - and ex - husband brought us to Savannah, and it has been my passion to get to know and to be involved in the local art community ever since. I look forward to profiling artists,...
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