Wetumpka woman launches art education

Growing up believing everyone creates things based on her family background, Whitfield said, she truly believes art is for everyone.

Since advocating for art in Elmore County schools since before she even moved to Wetumpka, Shellie Whitfield is now the first art teacher at Redland and Eclectic elementary schools, teaching 1,000 kids every two weeks.

“It’s not the end result of art; it’s how you feel when doing it. These kids have so much to express,” said Whitfield. “Imperfection is beauty in people and in art. It’s my mantra and a great concept to teach the kids.”

Last year, Whitfield and her family moved from Colorado into the Big Fish house in downtown Wetumpka. Since the initial impression of welcoming, friendly townspeople, Whitfield and her husband have been overwhelmed at the generosity of the city.

“We knew we wanted to move and did some research about Alabama. We flew into Atlanta, rented a convertible and just started driving. When we went through Wetumpka, we were instantly greeted by people wanting to show us around,” she said. “We knew this was home.”

The family has felt this kindness from the day they moved in. Kathy Willis with The Kelly Fitzpatrick Memorial Gallery personally knocked on Whitfield’s door the day she moved in to invite her to an art reception that night. Whitfield said, the members of the nonprofit art group have been wonderful about including her in activities and shows, even through her nerves about the initial showing of her work.

Whitfield has joined The Kelly exhibit committee; displayed her art in four shows there and placed in three of them; opened Big Fish Studios across from her home; and has spread her joy and desire to implement art in schools throughout the community.

Whitfield’s background not only involves teaching art but stepping outside conventional methods and introducing art to impoverished and high-risk children.

“I love working with these kids. The ones that don’t have art, usually have the most to express,” Whitfield said.

When living in Newnan, Georgia, Whitfield created mobile art camps and often packed up her truck with supplies for the projects. Swarms of children came out to learn and create.

“They just loved it; so much emotion comes out,” she added.

Whitfield hopes to create affordable art camps for local Elmore County children next summer.

After moving to Atlanta, she helped initiate a rising kindergarten class for the underprivileged youngsters who could not afford pre-school. The two-week class taught the basics of school etiquette – such as standing in line, raising your hand and sharing with others.

“It really leveled the playing field. It’s very rewarding because some of these kids just need a chance,” said Whitfield.

Her own family is no stranger to diversity. Two of her four children are adopted Korean boys, Whitfield said, and Wetumpka High School has been accepting of them as a diverse population.

“They have really gone above and beyond to suit our needs. We love other cultures and embrace the differences in our family,” she said.

This heartwarming culture is why Whitfield and her family are in awe of Wetumpka and its people.

“Nobody loves it here more than I do. Everyone is always helping out,” she said.

This extends to the generosity felt when beginning her art classes this year, which required raising funds and receiving donations.

“Before I got here, I made a package to send to all the school principals letting them know I was coming. It outlined all the things I’ve done and included letters, projects, news clippings, etc., to get them excited about my arrival,” she said. “And then … crickets.”

Five days before school started this year, Whitfield received an offer to teach art in the elementary schools, but with little budget in place, as this was a new initiative.

“I began reaching out to artists from The Kelly and from all over Elmore County,” she said. “I started receiving a ton of supply donations. I had piles of paint brushes, fabric, yarn, beads, watercolor – you name it.”

She also received a $1,000 donation to purchase an art cart for use at Redland Elementary School, as she does not yet have a classroom there.

“The Kelly even bought me a working sink at Eclectic Elementary, where I do have a classroom,” Whitfield said. “I was so overwhelmed by all the support.”

Now, she’s able to resonate her love of creating to local children Tuesdays through Thursdays, rotating schools each week. One week she is at Redland and the next at Eclectic. The Redland semesters are broken into kindergarten through third grades one semester and fourth through sixth grades the next. Eclectic is kindergarten through fourth each week she is there.

“Children should grow up knowing the color wheel. When they get to high school, the teacher had to teach just the basics. She’s so grateful they will get some foundation training now,” said Whitfield. “I teach the elements of design and some basic art history.”

The character-building stories that come from artists’ backgrounds increase awareness about the diversity in the arts, she said.

“We celebrate being different. The kids start to get more comfortable with me and with the art process. Eventually their work turns into something unique and meaningful. They’re so proud of what they’ve made. This confidence carries over into other areas of life,” said Whitfield.

Having done significant diversity training, Whitfield said she could also coordinate her art projects with other subjects’ curriculums to reinforce what the students are learning.

When not teaching art in the schools, Whitfield can be found in her “She Shack” art studio – Big Fish Art Studio, across from her home. Her crude-styled, textured art is crafted using her grandmother’s old butter knife.

“It brings me joy, and when I paint with joy, it permeates into my art. I love to use a lot of bright, happy colors,” she added.

Whitfield also works with papièr maché, oils, chalk, acrylic, old hardware restored into jewelry and more. She uses toothbrushes, her fingers and spatulas – basically anything aside from a paintbrush, for the majority of pieces.

“I sculpt the paintings to create texture; through color and texture is how you create emotion. I struggle to paint things that don’t have meaning,” explained Whitfield.

She does custom works, which to Whitfield includes creating heirlooms for people’s families. Whitfield’s work could also be found at Red Hill Gallery, at 3284 Red Hill Rd. in Tallassee. Here, she is a member of its new managing 12-person arts council, and she was recently celebrated with a spotlight reception.

“Certain people are born and just have to create,” said Whitfield.

For more information about Whitfield and her artwork, visit Big Fish Art Studio Facebook page.