An Interview with Shelby Donnelly


Shelby Donnelly has been working as an Educator at the Fabric Workshop and Museum in Philadelphia since 2009. Part of her role is heading up the High School Apprentice Training program where she teaches talented teenagers how to design and print their own original textiles. Her educational background has its foundations in Printmaking and Drawing, however her advanced studies in Fibers and expansion of her practice into video and performance makes for a compelling body of work. She gave an enormous amount of care in answering our questions below and they give a wonderful glimpse into her life and practice.

An Interview with Shelby Donnelly from the Print Club Ltd. Journal
An Interview with Shelby Donnelly from the Print Club Ltd. Journal

When did you start printing?

My first memory of printmaking was sneaking into Midway Village, a historical site near my childhood home. I brought crayons and made rubbing of the gravestones and textures around the school yard where civil war reenactments took place. 

My first formal introduction to printmaking was a wood block relief printing class with Tom Huck at Washington University in St. Louis as a Junior in college. There was so much male energy in the room—I wanted to make it my own. ‘You gotta burn to shine’ was the attitude. I was coming from my hometown Rockford Illinois where I was heavily influenced by the local punk scene and had started getting into more experimental music. The printmaking studio at Washington University was always playing the Ramones and underground music sourced by the college radio station DJ’s. 

It seemed like the right department for me to work through ideas—the energy was infectious. Once I declared my major in Printmaking I studied closely with Lisa Bulawsky who could enter into my work with a special patience. She could brilliantly approach Printmaking as a way of thinking through many different aspects of life from the political to the everyday.  

An Interview with Shelby Donnelly from the Print Club Ltd. Journal
An Interview with Shelby Donnelly from the Print Club Ltd. Journal


Where do you make your work? Home studio? Shared print space?

I have worked in a variety of environments both shared and private. My main rule is to adapt my art making to whatever space I have access to. If it isn’t an interior space then I find public spaces. The last 3 apartments I lived in, I designated a tiny separate space from my bedroom as my making space. I was fortunate that they were private spaces because I find I need at least one space in my life that is sacred--a space that is not apologetic in anyway. I also need a fare amount of solitude in order to shed self-consciousness. 

An Interview with Shelby Donnelly from the Print Club Ltd. Journal

How do you see your print background informing your more expanded practice?

Printmaking is this wonderful combination of two-dimensional and three-dimensional surfaces focusing heavily on the process. I found that the printmaking the process overrides expectation-or rather the expected result. I love the flirtation with failure that is inherent to the printmaking process. I think studying Printmaking and Drawing during my B.F.A laid the foundation for how make my work now in that I let the process lead me. I also continue to work in 2/d and 3/d. I try to make few conscious decisions and work from the gut—which is often doing some kind of gymnastics.


Who would you love to collaborate with?

Anyone I adore, find puzzling or complicated--ideally all of the above.  I find myself looking at strangers and people I know to see if I would cast them in a particular role in my artwork. Whether it is posing for a drawing, acting in in a video, or making costumes for their body.

It would be a dream to collaborate with core creative team—It would consist of a dancer (or several), a sound engineer or composer, a video editor, and a financial advisor. I’d like to be the Director and create the larger vision. I am gearing up to write some grants which would allow me to collaborate more. I’d love to collaborate with Sophie Calle, Agnes Varda—women who make films—could I get Maya Deren’s spirit too?

Cindi Ettinger is a Philadelphia Printmaker who for years has collaborated with artists to make printed editions. It would be incredible to work with her to create a series of printed illustrations for a small book of writing I am working on.

An Interview with Shelby Donnelly from the Print Club Ltd. Journal
An Interview with Shelby Donnelly from the Print Club Ltd. Journal

Where are some of your favorite spaces in Philadelphia for contemporary art or design?

The locksmith storefront on 13th street between Ludlow and Chestnut St. is a pretty special place. It is the tiniest brick and mortar business I have seen. It is this secret little closet holding keys to peoples private spaces within the city. Definitely the restaurant Positano Coast in that it looks like an inflatable swimming pool. I would like to do a performance piece in that winding staircase that looks onto the Ritz 5 theater. 

I have moved nearly every year since I moved to Philadelphia in 2006. I hunt new secret spaces in each neighborhood I move to. Right now I am living in this very old 400 square foot old apartment in Rittenhouse square, the perfect headquarter for me as I work my way into as many entrances around this neighborhood as possible. A recent interior that I entered was the Racquet Club where there are a couple of grandfather clocks. Those clocks and other aspects of that space are finding their way into my current drawings and writing work. I also had a friend remind me of the PSFS building by architect George Howe where Cartier clocks are scattered throughout the building. I used to go swimming in the gym there. I like to imagine mysteries in the new spaces I enter, which then influence narrative collages that span video, drawing, and dancing. Oh and USPS mailboxes are a constant. I try to put 1-3 letters in the mailbox next to my apartment weekly. I also love my PO BOX and the brass key that opens it.


What are you working on at the moment?

I have begun drawing with watercolors on primed canvases with gesso I am making from scratch. Preparing the substrate in advance is a habit I got from Printmaking, but these are very much collages and drawings. The imagery is driving towards a sort of mystery with an erotic and psychological charge. Any time I am working two-dimensionally I am also working three-dimensionally. I am working on ideas for choreographing tableau vivants that would be performed in either a gallery space or a public space. The tableaux expand on the symbolism in the collages and drawings. 

My dear friend is getting married and she has asked me to make her wedding dress—but we are working on an alternate name like ceremonial dress. Working on writing a proposal to go back to Paris next year for a period of time to make a movie. I am also taking some ballet classes and reconnecting with that part of my expression. I am writing a lot to try to secure financial support for new projects and also writing as a way to capture the overflow of my thought process.