Milkmaid image

Mary Michael Shelley

Folk Art Americana Painted Wood Carvings

One of a kind and original artwork.

About Mary Shelley

My art work is entirely carved in white pine and then painted with acrylics. Each piece is a unique original. I am untaught and untrained as a visual artist. I learned a number of useful skills by building my own house, and during my work in the trades as a signpainter and carpenter.

I was born in Doylestown, Pennsylvania in 1950. I have  lived in Ithaca, New York ever since I graduated from Cornell '72 with a major in creative writing. While at Cornell, I wanted to be a writer.  One year after graduating my father gave me a painted wood carving he had made of me at the farm where I grew up (Mary Shelley's  father's work). I started to make carvings as well. I soon had stopped writing and was only doing visual art. I am commonly referred to as an american folk artist, although I feel most comfortable with the term “self-taught”.  Americana, naive, whimsical and primative have also been used to describe my three dimensional carved and painted pictures. I don't fit into "outsider", but I do definately think of my work as visionary, especially my dream series work. I am also very much a "crafts" person. My goal is to create a quality crafted piece of art that will survive long past my lifetime.

My woodcarved and painted pictures are entirely carved on rough cut white pine boards that are air-dried in the crawl space beneath the front porch to my house. I start with a rough cut board and carve down to create shapes. I use no glued on pieces. A sliding batten is fastened on the back of the carving to prevent warping or cupping. Most of my pieces are carved on four quarter (1” thick) stock. I then paint the carving with acrylics, sealing it front and back (again to prevent warping) with an acrylic varnish. An inner gold-leafed frame completes the look of each piece. Some of my most recent pieces include copper and buttons.

Photo of the Mary Michael Shelley in her studio, beginning to paint a piece


As I make a piece of artwork I become entirely absorbed in it, but once it is finished and gone I get wholeheartedly into the next piece.

I do pictures of subject matter that is important to me. My artwork douments the events and feelings of my life, with much of it fitting into one of four series  -"Diner", "Farm", "Outdoor/vacation" and "Dreams".

Since 1974 I have completed approximately 1500 carved and painted wood pictures. For fourteen of those years I supplemented my art income by working as a sign painter/ carpenter.  Since 1990 I have worked as a psychotherapist, and thus you might notice a focus in my work on people- their faces, suffering, hopes, endurance and beauty.

As an artist I experience a sense of isolation because I work alone for many hours of the day. So I like to think of my pictures going to live with people I do not know and becoming a part of their lives.


Here are some articles on my painted and carved American folk art:

           2013 article in the Ithaca Times The Ithaca Times article was written by Edward Hower, a skilled writer who has a fine way with words. Here's a link to Hower's most recent book "Slick", featuring my artwork on the cover.

       1999 New York Times article that gives some sense of where my work (mentioned at the very end of the article, page 3) fits into the history of  American folk art. In this article Holland Cotter wrote: "If much of the 20th-century work in the show is fanciful, it also touches on real life in all its bumptious oddity and warmth. Such is the case with the painted relief  Sullivan's Diner IV (1989) by Mary Michael Shelley, 49, an artist from Ithaca, N.Y., who has a degree in English from Cornell and is a practicing social worker. The piece, which conjures up 19th-century shop signs and the sculptures of the contemporary artist Red Grooms, depicts the interior of a local restaurant that Ms. Shelley frequents. She chose the subject, she says, because restaurants are places 'where people, isolated during the rest of their day, could come together just to "be" and feel a sense of instant belonging.''

           Online article in Folk Art Life.

           Article in Voices, the journal of New York Folklore society.

           Article in Nashville Arts June 2010 issue about Beverly Keel and Ronnie Stein, collectors of my work. Mention of my work and a picture of Red Robin Diner piece.

Want to see my artwork in person?

The internet is great, but all work looks its very best when you see it "in the flesh". Make an appointment to visit my studio. I carve at the Ithaca Farmers' Market ( every Saturday May through September, booth #3.


Photo of the artist with her six foot tall in the round piece commissioned by the Coca-Cola Company for the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. This piece is currently located at the World of Coca-Cola, Las Vegas, NV.






Sign up for
my e-newsletter