ANGRY MOTHER EARTH: Shelly Salter’s painting “The story of Demeter, Goddess of wheat,” exemplifies the artist’s mission to provoke awareness of environmental issues. (Courtesy of Shelly Salter)

For artist Shelly Salter, storytelling is at the heart of her work. Whether painting in oils or drawing in charcoal, she loves to bring the past back to life.

“Every person has a story to tell. Every face has a story to tell. I love to draw a person,” explains the artist, who is now living in Aurora, Illinois. Recently, Ms. Salter visited a nearby nursing home and listened to the residents tell their stories; she was amazed. “Each life has taken a journey that is remarkable.”

Ms. Salter markets herself as a portrait artist, but privately she thinks of herself as an illustrator trying to get a story across. “My background is in journalism,” she says. “I was trained for broadcasting.” For this reason, she often writes a one-page story to accompany her work.

“I wrote commercials for awhile, so I had practice at finding the very pith, the essence of the story. I try to tell the story in the drawing or painting, and I write about it, too.” Her “histories” that accompany many of her works are as short as 175 words.

Ms. Salter normally does a lot of historical research before she draws or paints. Her charcoal drawing of Wyatt Earp “practically drew itself,” she says. She explained that the purpose behind this drawing was to recover a lost story. “Everyone knows his name, but who knows what he looks like? He’s been famous for more than a hundred years and most people don’t remember who he really is or what his story is.”

Ms. Salter stumbled upon some great stories. Accompanying her drawing of two boys in vintage clothing is this story: In 1876  during a heavy snow storm, a train went through an iron bridge in Ashtabula, Ohio, and down 75 feet to the river. Seven coaches of passengers burned and those who did not burn, drown or froze. One person out of every five was killed. The bridge had just passed inspection the week before.

These kinds of stories, bits of history recaptured and depicted, are why Ms. Salter particularly likes libraries as a venue for her work. She has just closed her exhibit at the Gail Borden library in Elgin, Ill.
The impetus behind her “Great Men in History Series,” probably her most popular series is similar. Her charcoals of Einstein: Man of Equations, Lincoln: Man of Speeches, JFK: Man of Questions, Martin Luther King, Jr.: Man of Dreams, and others, show insightful portraits, that again, tell a story.

In her drawing of Lincoln: Man of Speeches, for example, she wanted to show the work that went into Lincoln’s speeches. So she projected Lincoln’s actual writing, with scratched-out markings and all, behind his portrait.

“History—I love history, and I don’t want the stories lost,” Salter explains.

Following the Masters

Following the advice of the old masters, Ms. Salter begins her day, every day, with drawing. It serves as a warmup to painting. “If you cannot draw, you cannot paint.”

In addition to her charcoals, Ms. Salter specializes in two ancient painting techniques.
With Ala Prima technique, paint is applied to the canvas in a direct manner, and Ms. Salter uses this technique to paint from life rather than from a photograph. “Up close,” her Web site states, “the viewer sees lots of thick, colorful dabs of paint.”

Ms. Salter studied the Technique Mixte with master artist Patrick Betaudier in France. This method, used by Renaissance masters like Carravagio and Jan Van Eyck, requires a diligence seldom found today.

First she makes the canvas with linen and then prepares the linen by applying gesso, a primer, which must be reapplied and sanded three or more times until it is smooth. She then draws on this surface and works until the drawing is perfected. Only at this point does she begin painting. The painting is accomplished through a series of washes of oil and medium, painted over the drawing to create a smooth finish. This technique is said to allow the objects painted to appear as if being illuminated from within.

Every once in a while, due to the exhaustive work this technique demands, Ms. Salter has an existential moment of anguish. “Why am putting myself through all of this?” She feels akin to Donatelli who stood before a beautiful finished sculpture and close to desperation yelled out, “Breathe, [expletive]! Breathe!”

Her painting “Demeter” uses the Technique Mixte. The skin of the goddess depicted is so life-like that she looks as though she will jump out of the canvas.

Paintings With a Mission

The painting “Demeter” actually reveals another of Salter’s passions—one for the environment. Salter’s Web site goes into details: In her rendition of the Greek fable, “Demeter is angry because hormone-altering pesticides are poisoning our food and water sources, wreaking havoc with our bodies and contributing to global warming.”

DIED OF BREAST CANCER: Biologist Rachel Carson, depicted by Shelly Salter in this charcoal drawing, died of breast cancer before she could finish her drive to outlaw dangerous chemicals.

Ms. Salter’s charcoal rendering of Biologist Rachel Carson, here looking wise yet concerned, is another example of this artist’s mission. In her book “Silent Spring,” Carson “made the world aware of the horrors of DDT and other chemicals during an era that advertised ‘better living though chemistry.’” She foresaw that even small doses of chemicals in our food and water, although considered safe, could have a cumulative and unknown effect over time. Carson effectively campaigned for legislature to prohibit the use of these chemicals.

Currently, Ms. Salter is working on another mythological painting—one based on the Greek fable “Pandora’s Box.” It is about how we, with our overdependence on chemicals and an easy way of life, have unleashed all kinds of ills upon the world. She hopes that the beauty of the painting along with the modern retelling of the myth will help people wake up to the urgency of our ecological crisis.

How does Ms. Salter’s very immediate concern for the environment tie into her love of history? There is a beauty and purity in the past that Ms. Salter hopes to see return. “The Amish have something going there,” she says.

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