ARTISTRY ALIGHT: Emerging artist races to get ready for her first pro show at MAIN ST.
By Charlotte Settle
Photography by Olaf Growald
Inside The Cornerstone cafe in Arlington, 32-year-old painter Michelle “Shelbie Mac” McElree sets up her canvas. She is adding finishing touches to a landscape — one of her trademarks. This is where she spends most of her days lately, cranking out pieces for her booth at this year’s MAIN ST. Fort Worth Arts Festival, the first professional show she’s ever done.
One of the nation’s largest arts festivals, MAIN ST. is extraordinarily competitive. Of over 1,300 applicants, only 200 artists are offered a booth. The festival’s jurors chose McElree in this year’s Emerging Artist category.
“I thought about turning it down,” says McElree, who wondered whether she’d be able to handle the opportunity and create enough pieces in time. “But my sister encouraged me to stick it out and just try it.”
Growing up, McElree was home-schooled in Arlington, where her family encouraged her to pursue art from a young age. She won dozens of local art competitions throughout high school, including the Star-Telegram Stock Show Art Contest, where she took home Grand Champion twice.
But visual art wasn’t always her dream. At age 14, she fell in love with musical theater. She moved to New York a few years later to train at a Broadway conservatory. “I found that I loved it more than art,” she says. “I was so shy, but being onstage, I could be extroverted.”
The culture shock of the city ultimately took a toll on McElree’s health, forcing her to move home. She found a way, however, to combine her love for visual art and theater through scenic design. Painting sets has been her main source of income for years; she works today at Artisan Center Theater near her home in Hurst.
Still, scenic art is “just a job,” McElree admits. Lately, she has felt directionless, living paycheck to paycheck and feeling unfulfilled. “Scenic art is so draining physically,” she says. “I can’t do it forever.”
McElree’s older sister, Kaylee Parsons, has encouraged her to forgo scenic design for a career as an independent gallery artist. The two scoped out the MAIN ST. festival last year, and Parsons persuaded her sister to apply. “If Kaylee thinks I can do this, it gives me the confidence that I can,” McElree says.
MAIN ST. is a grueling four days during which artists must be present at their booths nonstop, but McElree says she’s up for the challenge and views it as a perfect platform to launch her independent art business.
“It’s one of the most prestigious festivals in the nation, and it’s close to home,” she says.
As the festival draws near, the pressure to produce excellent work is on. McElree wants to impress potential buyers — and friends and family who are flying in from all over the country. To combat stress, McElree prays, goes for long walks and leans on support from her sister.
McElree wants to produce as many as 20 pieces for her MAIN ST. booth, and she was up to 15 by mid-March. She calls herself a “painting gypsy.” At the start of each week, she transports her box easel, supplies and paintings to Cornerstone, which she likes for the light, space and community of fellow church members who hang out there. At week’s end, she takes the kit to her sister’s place and paints there over the weekend.
McElree’s pieces for the festival feature two main subjects: landscapes and dancers. Clouds are her “happy maker,” and painting dancers is an expression of her fascination with movement.
“For all these dancers, I kind of like to live through them,” McElree says. She moves to music while she paints — likely stemming from her time onstage — and imagines she is dancing with her brush. McElree says her best work emerges when she releases expectations and allows the rhythms to influence her brushstrokes.
She qualified for MAIN ST. and a $250 discounted booth fee because, among other factors, she lives in the state and it’s her first professional show.
Beyond the festival, McElree hopes an influx of commission work will kick-start her independent art business, and that a thriving career will allow freedom to revisit her unfinished pursuit — performing onstage. With thousands of people expected to pass by her booth during the festival, she feels “confident that things can happen, that doors can open.”
Charlotte Settle is a North Texas journalist and contributor to 360West.