"I’ve always wanted to see my paintings in 3-D," says Houston artist Shelbi Nicole. She’s taking a break from the installation of her second solo gallery show to talk to us, and she’s wearing workout gear and a baseball cap. There’s a small blotch of white paint on her black hoodie, but her face looks fresh, considering she stayed up until 1 a.m. a few days before, working in the gallery.
About 10 days before the “pink carpet” opening of her Instagram-friendly show The Whimsy World at the District Art Gallery in Downtown’s Art Warehouse District, there’s still a lot of work to be done, but Nicole has enlisted a hardworking team—friends, her sister, and gallery owner Moriah Alise, whom Nicole met by chance last year after complimenting the gallerist's shirt.
Inside the space, millennial pink is everywhere, from a rose gold tinsel curtain hanging near the front door to the large bubblegum-colored trash cans Nicole’s mother spray-painted (Nicole, a millennial herself, was born in 1986). There are other colors—Nicole tells us she “loves yellow"—plus black, baby blue, red, mossy green. All these colors exist in little vignettes, or rooms, each with its own name and theme. One of the concepts of the show is that each little room serves as a social media-friendly photo booth. Even though when I visit, the installation is still in progress, it’s easy to see how the gallery will turn into an immersive experience by the time the show opens on February 9.
Nicole has been developing the idea for this show for almost four years. She wanted to create something like the Museum of Ice Cream—something that used experiential advertising, but that was actually about art. “I wanted to create a world for my art,” she says. “The best way I know how to describe it is like walking into one of my paintings.”
For her first solo show, in 2015 at Urban Gallery, Nicole made a series of paintings featuring manic-looking skulls and Spongebob-esque cartoons. For Whimsy World, her style has morphed into more abstract, organic shapes. All of her work has a distinctively ‘80s tinge, with elements of Warhol, Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Memphis design. Cementing the vibe, ‘80s music will be blaring from the speakers during the show’s grand opening.
“I’m inspired by science, shapes, and the placement of those shapes,” she says. Her work in this show brings to mind amoebas and lotus pods. One of the installations is a cardboard forest. Another is a giant pig, a nod to the show’s main sponsor, People’s Trust Bank. (Piggy bank, anyone?)
But there is another inspiration, too. Nicole tells us her favorite artist is Yayoi Kusama, whose influence is evident in the colors and polka dots, in the whimsical yet chaotic forms, but also in the ‘Gram-worthiness of the show. Like Kusama, Nicole’s work is distinctively feminine. We also talk about Kusama’s well-documented mental health struggles, and how Nicole identifies with them. “My struggles with depression are why I started painting,” she says. “It might be weird to talk about, but I’m very open about it.”
In her artist’s statement, Nicole writes that she is “most centered when I am creating… Interpretation is left to the individual viewer, with the hope that the work elicits positive ‘feel good' vibes for them and makes one want to smile.”
Nicole’s friends, who are sitting next to us as Nicole talks about her depression, nod and murmur in agreement. "That’s just how she is,” one of them says of her candor. It’s then that the theme of the show makes itself clear to us. Some artists apply their pain to the canvas. And some artists apply their wishes. In Shelbi Nicole’s world, we’re all just organic beings, trying to make it through life—might as well grab some whimsy wherever we can.
The Whimsy World Pink Carpet Grand Opening, Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. Exhibition thru Feb. 28. Tickets $28. District Art Gallery, 810 Richey St. 346-808-0291. More info and tickets at thewhimsyworld.com.