From Frozen to Flourishing

When Nancy Shell first started taking classes at Fleisher, she felt frozen.

Shell, who is disabled, had recently lost her job and grew up in an abusive household in which pursuit of a job took priority over artistic exploration. Though she was intimidated by the talent she saw around her in Fleisher’s painting studios, Shell was harboring a secret. In 2012 she received an Art and Change Grant from the Leeway Foundation to support The Freedom Quilt, a 50-foot textile project that celebrated the 150th anniversary of the 13th Amendment. Shell had also received two Window of Opportunity Grants from the foundation and, in 2015, was the recipient of one of its Transformation Awards.

Much of her growth as an artist she attributes to her studies with Fleisher teaching artist John Sevcik. While she learned much about painting and process in other classes, she says, “John’s class taught me trust … trust in the vision, clarity of the mind’s eye, in the process.” Despite the accolades she had received, Shell says she began to question whether or not she was a “real artist,” and found her insecurities preventing her from initially participating in class.

“I literally could not do anything,” she says. “I went to John’s class and for three weeks I just sat there and did nothing. I couldn’t put pen to paper. He talked me through it, he talked me off the wall.”

Above: Shell, front row, with her fellow finalists at the Barnes Foundation. Photo courtesy Steve Weinik.

Bolstered by Sevcik’s encouragement and the support of her fellow students, Shell says she began to realize that not everything she created in class needed to match the caliber of her previous work. They urged her to submit of her pieces, Cosmic Protection Goddesses, to Fleisher’s 120th Annual Student Exhibition, in which it received the first place prize in the Works on Paper category. (Shell, with her work, is pictured above.)

Emboldened by the prize, Shell embarked on a journey to the Barnes Foundation – her first ever visit to the institution – to participate in its Let’s Connect: Philly Artists Take on the Barnes exhibition, held jointly with Mural Arts Philadelphia. Shell says she was immediately attracted to the works of Henri Rousseau that are housed in the collection, particularly the Victorian-style garb that adorn the figures in The Past and the Present, or Philosophical Thought (Le Passé et le présent, ou Pensée philosophique). Shell’s grandmother, one of six children of a slave and a southern plantation owner, almost always dressed in black dresses with a lace collar and a broach.

Above: Shell’s painting of her grandmother, inspired by the works of Henri Rousseau.

In her painting, she says, she “wanted to document that part of history that goes unsung. People think that slavery ended in 1865, but that’s not true.” When voting opened for the public and Barnes curators in June for the more than 300 works by Philadelphia artists generated by the project, Shell was named a top 20 finalist. Her work, as well as that of her fellow finalists, will be highlight throughout the year through a number of programs.

“Nancy is a wonderful presence wherever she goes, as I know from every class I’ve taught her,” says Sevcik. “She will be wonderful in any way the Barnes finds to further promote her and our community in Philadelphia.”

Throughout her recent accomplishments, Shell says she hopes that other people who are disabled will feel empowered and endeavor to make themselves more visible.

“We can do stuff … and start trouble,” she says with a laugh.

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