“I’m fascinated by wonderous places, especially places that inspire me to create wonderful things. I’ve traveled to tombs, temples, shrines, and sanctuaries as well as magical gardens, venerated caves, and awe-inspiring monuments. My work strives to recreate the spirit of these places and share it with others.”
When Rick Shelley was thirteen, he carefully researched and then built a miniature Egyptian funerary scene with a soap-carved mummy, balsa wood chests filled with treasure, amulets made of chalk, faux papyrus scrolls, and a tiny throne chair with a beach shell for a back. Then, like a want-to-be archeologist, he buried it all in his back yard so he could dig it up days later to imitate Howard Carter’s discovery of Tut’s tomb. Now encased and preserved under a small glass pyramid, the excavated elements of The Valley of the Soap Kings turn out to have been just a foretaste of the artist's lifetime engagement with fantastical objects and magical tales.
Indulging a passion for the ancient and the amazing, Rick Shelley collects objects of varying degrees of authenticity for his latter-day Wunderkammer (“cabinets of curiosities”or “cabinets of wonders”).
The cabinet of curiosities was a kind of proto-museum, popular among European aristocracy from the 1500’s to the 1700’s. Historical, religious, cultural and scientific objects were collected and displayed side by side in a feast of knowledge in four major categories: Scientifica, Naturalia, Artificialia, and Exotica. Ostensibly assembled for the purpose of understanding the world, truth mingled with fiction and objects like automated toys, rare tusks, biblical relics or weapons from the New World served both to fire the imagination and dazzle visitors with the collector’s wealth.
Rick Shelley’s Wunderkammer includes both authentic and questionable objects. Vitrines and cabinets display a jumble of curiosities: a thread from Saint Francis’ tunic, a pine cone from ancient Olympia, vials filled with holy water from the Basilica of San Marco and Saint Peters, a glass globe containing the last breath of Marcel Duchamp, Archimedes’ bathtub plug, a manuscript showing the opening bars of Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony, the stone David slung at Goliath, Cleopatra’s other pearl, a feather dropped by the angel Gabriel during the Annunciation, the pickled uvulas of Farinelli and Caruso, cheese curls shaped like a virgin and child, and more. Through it all, is the jovial presence of the artist himself, endlessly imaginative and gently irreverent.
A pseudo-Wunderkammer is Rick Shelley’s Theater Serenissima with a red-curtained stage smaller
than a desk top. Theatre Serenissima continues a tradition of miniature theaters that dates to the early 1800’s and was wildly popular as after-dinner entertainment in Victorian parlors. Shelley writes many of the stories for Theatre Serenissima which are often based on Italian folktales about witches, giants, sea monsters, and haunted villas. Scenes change with the pull of a string or drop of a lever to create surprise transformations. Presentations range from sardonic to the sublime, always refining a panoply of tricks to amaze audiences, one small group at a time.
With references to long ago times and religious traditions, Rick Shelley’s ceramic and mosaic work have a transcendent quality that lift the viewer out of the everyday. He constructs terra cotta models of gothic cathedrals, shrines, classical temples and other-worldly structures. Over the years, he has created a bestiary of winged sphnixes, cave monsters, bejeweled snakes and spiders, heavenly creatures, and even aliens.
Rick Shelley is a founding member of Baltimore Clayworks. He has taught ceramics and mosaics to over a thousand students. His commissions include a mosaic mural of the ancient world at the Walters Art Museum showing sea monsters and wind gods.