Dorothy Shain: Painting a Path

by Elysian Magazine
Dorothy Shain

Travel and art intersect for a bold career choice

When I call Dorothy Shain early one morning, she is somewhat out of breath. She’s on the move. Where’s she’s coming from or going to, I do not know, but instantly, I want to. An art collector once told me that when you buy a piece of art, you’re not just investing in the artwork, you’re investing in the artist and in their story. Shain lives artfully and with purpose. She’s gutsy. She is someone you want to know. You want to be taken on the journey with her.

Shain grew up in Greenville, South Carolina, before moving to Dallas, where she attended Southern Methodist University, earning her B.A. in Studio Art from the Meadows School of the Arts. During her time at university, Shain took part in the Semester at Sea program. She traveled by herself and didn’t know a soul. “I was a total nervous wreck,” she admits. Shain ended up making lifelong friends — a core group of around 20 people, that still impact her life and work today.

While at Sea, Shain visited 13 countries. She vividly remembers a trip to the Mekong Delta in Vietnam. She and a classmate were riding on mopeds; two non-English speaking Vietnamese men were the drivers. It was getting dark, and they were getting nervous, but the men convinced them to stay, promising an “incredible” sight. Then suddenly, a multitude of fireflies started blinking simultaneously. This species only exists in two places in the entire world, the other being in the Smoky Mountains of Tennessee, where Shain grew up seeing them. It was a powerful lesson in synchronicity, one that would later guide her career.

“Sea, Air & Land” from The Pacific Coast Collection.

Shain began saving receipts, saving tickets — all sorts — and started collaging in an art class she took during the program. It was then she pieced things together and thought to herself: “I know I love to travel. I know I love to do art. This is merging.”

After college, Shain landed in Charleston by way of Steam Boat Springs, Colorado and Washington, D.C. She was working for a non-profit, and although she enjoyed feeling connected to a good cause, she wasn’t doing anything creative. “I got to a point where I realized I wasn’t happy and it was time to move on.” She made the bold decision to paint full-time. When she told friends, they said she was crazy and that it wasn’t going to work. But she persevered and took the plunge. She credits Charleston with giving her the confidence to do so. “I started looking around and realized there are so many people in Charleston doing this full time, and I thought, how are they doing that?” She secured studio space at the Redux Contemporary Art Center and began to study those around her.

At first, Shain had several gigs on the go — babysitting, teaching art camps — whatever it took to make it work. Today, she doesn’t have to do all those things. Today, the hard work and daring is paying off.

“Jungle to Jungle,” from the Collages.

Through the connections she made during Semester at Sea, Shain travels extensively and these travels are the subject of many of her collections. “The places I’ve painted are all places that have had a huge effect on me,” she explains. A common thread between these places (especially Jackson Hole and Venice Beach, the subjects of two of her most recent collections) is one of fearless living — people bucking against the trend and dream-chasing in a real way. “Venice Beach was the first time I had been somewhere where the mindset was totally different.” She describes a certain open-mindedness and drive about the West Coast, a place where people will wake up early to surf before work.

In Jackson Hole, home to “people from all different walks of life — young people who haven’t taken the typical corporate route,” Shain discovered a similar attitude among mountain-loving people doing whatever it takes to make ends meet so they can enjoy the Alpine splendor. “I’m really attracted to that mindset of doing what you love on a daily basis — it’s beautiful.”

“When I go on these trips, I’ll take my sketchbook and if I see something, even if it’s just colors, I’ll pull them out quickly and scribble them down. Or I do a really loose sketch.” She also takes several photos and prints these off when she gets back home to her studio. “Then I take everything — my sketchbook, old tickets, anything I have — and I dump out my purse and see what’s in there.”

Dorothy Shain Art

Shain starts small, on 6×6 pieces of paper, playing with scenes and patterns and tacking these up on the wall, before moving on to a larger scale. Color and pattern are like a second language to her. For each place, and in each piece, she forms a descriptive dialect, culled from memory and collected materials. “A lot of times, when I start painting, I feel like the painting kind of deciphers what colors are coming in,” Shain said. She gives the example of the Pacific Coast: “Yes, there’s an idea of what it looks like, but really, for me, I have this image of what it was like when I first saw it. I’m not thinking about how to make it look like the Pacific Coast.”

Dorothy Shain art

When Dorothy Shain isn’t traveling or working on art, she’s busy doing the business of art — the things that allow her to travel and create new work. “I think a lot of times people have the impression that, ‘Oh, you’re an artist. You must go to yoga, paint for a couple hours, and then call it a day.’ ” Shain explains it’s nothing like that. “It’s a total entrepreneurial venture.”

Whether forging new collaborations or figuring out how much small businesses are taxed, “it’s constantly figuring out how to make it work.” She continues, “I’ve learned so much that I didn’t know, especially on the financial side, but that is also a huge part of what drives me.”

Shain keeps a running list in her studio divided into three columns: current projects, projects in motion and targets. She updates the list every month. One day, she was looking at the board and noticed, “Everything, including targets, was in motion.” She explains: “I’m a huge believer in writing things down. Anything you want to happen, you should write it down, be able to see it, and put it in the universe.”

Shain hustles. She’s savvy. Last year, an interior designer from Boston redoing two hotels — one in Martha’s Vineyard and one in Nantucket — reached out and commissioned Shain to create 25 pieces. This was purely through Instagram.

Hollywood actress, writer and producer, Mindy Kaling, the proud owner of a new piece by Shain, shared a photo of the artwork hanging in her guest room to her 2.7 million followers on Instagram. Later, Shain’s artwork appeared in Architectural Digest when the magazine featured Kaling’s home.

“Whether you have 100 or 100,000 followers, if used in the right way, social media is a really helpful tool,” Shain explains. “It can bring in powerful connections and projects.” However, she’s quick to add, “It’s not everything. I feel that’s a good reminder too.”

Recently, a fellowship at the Greenville Center for the Creative Arts (GVCA) has brought Shain back to her hometown in South Carolina. The experience is pushing Shain’s work in new directions, something she welcomes. “I love pattern,” she says, “and the fellowship has given me time to explore that.” Previously, Shain has worked primarily with gouache, charcoal, ink, wax-and water-soluble crayons; now, she’s starting to experiment with acrylic. She’s also been able to expand her collage work to a much larger scale than ever before. Through the fellowship, Shain has reconnected with two artists she met at the Penland School for Crafts in North Carolina; together, the three women were part of a cohesive group show at GVCA this summer.

Dorothy Shain’s fellowship will be ending in August, so I ask her where she would like to venture to next. She mentions returning to Jackson Hole, as well as Taos, New Mexico, a place where she spent some time during a summer art program. She would also like to visit San Miguel de Allende in Mexico, and Barcelona is big on the list too. “But at the end of the day,“ she says, “I’ll go anywhere.”

Dorothy Shain in studio

Dorothy Shain enjoys a light moment in the studio.

By Abby Deering
Photographs by Josh Norris

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