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Type-A Artist, Lynnette Shelley (Part 2)

by David P. Kozinski

Lynnette Shelley recently celebrated both a birthday and the ten-year mark of her quest to become a full-time working artist, a goal she has mostly fulfilled. That in itself is remarkable – how many artists do you know who don’t depend on a day job? Now, imagine having the energy and creative drive to simultaneously sing and write songs, as Shelley has been doing since age nineteen.  She sang in the chorus in high school, and in several bands after that, while studying journalism at the University of Delaware. After college, she had jobs with a start-up internet company, a small weekly newspaper in Delaware, and for The Metro newspaper in Philadelphia, meanwhile teaching herself to use Photoshop, Illustrator and Dreamweaver, among other design programs. Shelley attributes her appreciation of deadlines – a helpful trait in any endeavor – to her experiences in journalism.  

She admits that although her first solo singing gig, “was a disaster,” she nonetheless, “caught the performance bug,” and went about learning to be a lead singer. She met her husband to be, Brandon Lord Ross, when they were part of a band that lasted through only four gigs. After moving to Philadelphia, they started a new group that became the prototype for The Red Masque, which formed in 2001, and has had several personnel changes in the years since. Their current configuration consists of Shelley singing and playing percussion, Ross playing bass guitar and keyboards, and the two of them writing songs together. The quintet is rounded out by James Tunnicliffe on violin, David Carle on guitars and Jim Harris, whom Shelley considers, “the best drummer we’ve ever had.”

The Red Masque’s website, www.theredmasque.com, describes them as an “original art rock/progressive rock band from Philadelphia, PA,” and lists influences including King Crimson, Pink Floyd, Magma, Gong, and Bauhaus; but sampling the music reveals distinctions that defy categorization. Varying dynamics and tempi, a generous helping of dissonance, ear-pleasing melody, and the power of hard-edged rock, comprise the engine that propels lyrics which, like Shelley’s artwork, often draw inspiration from myth and folklore. Her contralto ranges from airy and fanciful to an ominous growl. The band has recently performed in a benefit at Music Together LLC in Hopewell, NJ, and at Pennsylvania venues such as La Regina Studio in Bristol, Doc Watson’s in Exton and The Flash in Kennett Square. At the time of our interview, Shelley said The Red Masque was getting ready to record, adding to a discography that includes titles like, Death of the Red Masque, Feathers for Flesh, and Mythologue. Almost all the songs the band performs are original, but their cover of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” both pays homage to and puts a distinctive spin on one of the classics of acid rock.

The band doesn’t shy away from the darker aspects of existence. Here is a stanza from the Red Masque song “Fathomless” which explores the shark’s relentless predation and suggests that certain humans behave in similar fashion.

The scent of blood in the dark water
We don't want to make waves
With our black eyes we shall seek
All others give way to our need

Fathomless need

There is more than a touch of heavy metal in the driving accompaniment, delivered with more complex harmonic and rhythmic interplay between the vocals and the instruments than that genre often allows.

As if creating and marketing her artwork and playing an integral role in one band weren’t enough to fill any artist’s calendar, Shelley is also a founding member of a brand new art-rock band called Green Cathedral. They released their debut album, Winter’s Veil (Üser Records) on September 8, 2017. Shelley is the band’s lead singer and she shares lyrics credits on the record with bassist/vocalist Mark S. Walsh. For more on Green Cathedral, see www.green-cathedral.com.

In Part One of this article I mentioned that a number of Shelley's paintings have a dominant color. In other works, this seems less the case, as in “Turbulent Waters”, one of two “octopus” pictures featured here. Aqua green, purple/lavender and yellow are involved in portraying the remarkable creature, with its suction-cupped arms. In “El Pulpo”, the subject is predominantly red while the background’s swirls are mostly pale blue. A fish that the octopus may be devouring is depicted in orange and red. Shelley explained her fascination with the octopus’s unique evolution. They have three hearts, usually no skeleton and, for males at least, one of the arms is specialized as a sex organ. On top of that they are quite intelligent, having been observed using tools.

The subject in “Holy Cow” is largely green, but the portal behind it seems to open onto a universe of indigo and blue hues with the hint of an orange galaxy floating out of the picture plane. The black and purple “King of Crows”, smack in his portrait’s center, bends to examine a shining crown, his wings encircling it. Two of his subjects balance the middle ground while the background glitters with golden, yellow and amber hues reminiscent of Gustav Klimt, whom Shelley has cited as one of many influences. Others include Van Gogh, Chagall, William Blake, Frida Kahlo, Henri Rousseau and Susan Seddon Boulet. Also making her list are pen-and-ink artists Aubrey Beardsley and Edward Gorey, as well as, “medieval and zoomorphic art, illuminated manuscripts created by Celtic monks to Russian  iconic artists to Japanese scroll painters, from Byzantine to Art Nouveau, and Aboriginal art to ancient art forms from a variety of world cultures."

The colors Shelley chooses for “Sacred Hart” and “Wild Heart” may be more subdued but their effects, and the compositions of both works, are dramatic. The former includes a “sacred labyrinth” in its background, which the artist explained was a winding path that medieval landowners often placed in their gardens, symbolizing a pilgrimage, if they could not travel in person to the Holy Land. Two crows fly very near the hart, perhaps bearing otherworldly messages. The rearing horse of “Wild Heart” appears powerful, but is also canted at an angle that suggests it might be falling backwards, lending tension to the scene. The painting will be featured in Canton, Ohio at the Ikon Images Gallery in an exhibit titled, "The Art of Saving a Horse", from mid-October through year’s end. Inspired by Indian culture, the tone of “Sunny Days Ahead” matches its title. The sun and moon look down benevolently at a pair of elephants with maroon and green trunks. The smaller of the two holds its trunk up, signifying hope.

Among her many awards, Shelley won Best Artist of the 2016 Chester County (PA) Studio Tour; Best 2D work for “’Moondancers” at the 2016 Art and Artisan Fair at Baker Industries, Malvern, PA; and First Place for “Samhain” at the “Art of Darkness” show at Artworks, Trenton, NJ in 2012. She was one of 28 artists selected to participate in the “Donkeys Around Town” program in celebration of the 2016 Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. She painted two of the 57 fiberglass donkeys – representing Missouri and Oklahoma – that were placed at popular sites in the city in July. Also in 2016, four of her artworks were licensed as large prints that were permanently installed at an award-winning children’s health facility, Nemours DuPont Pediatrics, in Deptford, NJ, by Madison Art Consulting.

With her prolific creativity and jam-packed schedule, expect to hear more of Lynnette Shelley –  just about any place and in more than one art form.


A Note About The Author: David P. Kozinski first full-length book of poems, Tripping Over Memorial Day (Kelsay Books), was published in January 2017. He won the Dogfish Head Poetry Prize, which included publication of his chapbook, Loopholes. He has been the featured poet in Schuylkill Valley Journal. Publications include Apiary, Cheat River Review, Fox Chase Review, glimmertrain.com, Philadelphia Stories, Poetry Repairs, Rasputin, and The Rathalla Review. Kozinski was one of ten poets chosen by Robert Bly for a workshop sponsored by American Poetry Review. He serves on the boards of the Manayunk-Roxborough Art Center in Philadelphia and The Philadelphia Writers’Conference.  Kozinski lives in Wilmington, DE with his wife, actress and journalism teacher Patti Allis Mengers.