Palming Off Sculpture

Shelley Foley – Painter and palm pod sculptor

The trimming of palms in the Algarve rarely piques anyone’s interest. Yet, as she watched a gardener removing huge palm pods from a neighbour’s tree, artist and sculptor Shelley Foley recognised the opportunity to work with an extraordinary natural material.

“I thought the pods looked interesting so I asked the gardener if I could have them,” she recalls. Nowadays, she doesn’t even have to ask because he just throws them over the fence. “He asks me if I want the leaves as well.”

Shelley’s instincts were spot on; she has since produced numerous palm pod creations ranging from oversized tableware, wall hangings, lamps and just plain old floor decorations.

Not that there’s anything plain about Shelley’s art. The words that spring to mind are vibrant, flamboyant and dramatic.

She adores colour, something she believes stems from her early life in Saskatchewan, Canada, where it was grey and snowy for much of the year and residents painted their houses bright colours as an antidote to the monochrome landscape. “I was discouraged by a D in art and my mum went in to see the teacher and show her the paintings I’d done at home. She was surprised. In school, they wanted us to paint the trees green and the sky blue and I was never into that. I’ve always been more unrestrained.”

Shelley’s bold use of colour – neon oranges and purples, iridescent greens and pinks – was further inspired by her travels throughout the Caribbean, Thailand and Malaysia with her husband, Ken.

“I’ve always been interested in different cultures and loved to travel and I think it’s reflected in my art.”

Shelley’s home-based studio near Albufeira – a converted garage – is her “happy place”. It is in this light-filled room, with rescue dogs Woody and Bella by her side, where she transforms the surprisingly lightweight pods into stunning works of art. They vary wildly in curvature, length (one is 1.7 metres) and thickness and require dedicated preparation before the paint is applied.

“I power wash them, clean them with a wire brush, sand them and apply an anti-mould treatment. Then I leave them to dry out and sand them again,” Shelley explains. “They can be difficult to work with because as you paint them the fibres will come out.”

The unique shape of each pod ultimately determines its artistic fate, e.g. the more upright pods work better as floor decorations, while the curvier ones make superb table pieces. They can be very “tippy” as Shelley puts it, so to provide stability she frequently repurposes items she’s found at boot sales or at the bins, e.g. an ornate circular mirror frame, an old wine stand or a small stool.

At some point, Shelley invariably reaches for her impressive range of power tools, like the multi-purpose Dremel, which she uses to carve shallow insets in the pods to add her handmade pewter art.

Like the pod sculptures, her distinctive ‘Skinny People’ paintings with their elongated and faceless forms came about quite by chance.

Skinny people photo © Bob Tidy
Skinny people photo © Bob Tidy

“We were going on vacation and I had a whole bunch of paint I didn’t want to dry out, so I just painted the colours on a canvas,” she explains. “When we came back, I was looking at it and I thought ‘I see people’.”

Trusting her artistic intuition rather than planning at the outset of any new art project is an approach Shelley frequently uses. “I typically start with the background and then I stare at it for a while and see what I see in it.”

As a former interior designer for whom painting provided a creative outlet when she moved to the Algarve five years ago, Shelley continues to take courses in art and design techniques.

“Art is my passion,” she says. “I don’t have one style. I keep changing my styles because I get bored.”

Instagram: shelleyfoleyart


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