Uncovering her talent

Darya Shelby returns to art, exploring her thoughts on political freedom.

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It was a moment of serendipity that reinvigorated Darya Shelby’s pursuit of art. Last summer the 27-year-old former art student was approached by Meredith Aldrich of Mocha Mott’s to fill in at the last minute for an artist who was scheduled to exhibit there, but had to cancel.

“She told me, ‘You need to hang something in five days,’” recalls Shelby. “I had to come up with five different paintings.” It had been almost a decade since she had focused on art, but Shelby decided to take up the challenge. “The first day was painful,” she says. “The second day was painful. But finally I just took the brush in my hand and did a portrait.”

That was last June, and the political climate at the time proved to be the inspiration for a series of gouache and marker paintings. For each portrait Shelby selected a quote from Donald Trump to accompany the images. For example, a 2014 tweet reading “The U.S. Cannot allow EBOLA infected people back. People that go far away places to help out are great — but must suffer the consequences!” hangs below a portrait of a Red Cross worker wearing a face mask, against a background speckled with representations of microbes.

At the beginning of this month, Shelby hung another show at Mocha Mott’s. This time around she mixed things up a bit, not focusing solely on art with a message, although one painting is a humorous response to the COVID crisis, showing a woman loaded down with cleaning products.

Shelby was born and raised in Belarus, which, in her artist bio, she refers to as “Europe’s last dictatorship.” She studied art for a year, but found the teaching approach too restrictive. “I was always told that things had to be a certain way,” she says. “I thought, Why does it have to be this way? I realized that it doesn’t have to be.” The young artist now paints and draws in a cartoon style, using unexpected colors and adding abstract elements.

Eventually Shelby switched to journalism, but soon found that in her home country, that field did not allow for open expression either. “In Belarus, you either do what you are told, or you just don’t,” she says.

It was after covering the trial of two young men accused of an act of terrorism in 2011 that Shelby decided she needed to leave journalism — and the country of her birth. She explains that many in the country believed at the time that the two defendants were innocent, and that their hasty trial, conviction, and eventual execution were politically motivated.

Shelby took to the road, exploring places around the U.S. before settling on the Vineyard, where her sister was living at the time. “The Vineyard has a very unique atmosphere,” she says. “I just thought, Why not? I’m done traveling.” She has worked at various jobs, including most recently as a server at Offshore Ale Co. Eventually, with the encouragement of her boyfriend, Shelby left her job to focus full-time on her artwork.
Shelby says that she was never a very political person, but last year, with elections happening in both the U.S. and Belarus, she felt compelled to comment through her art in her first show at Mocha Mott’s.

“All people think about on a beautiful day on Martha’s Vineyard is, ‘I’m going to go to the beach,’” she says. “You need to know that there are things you can change. The election in Belarus was on August 8. The first three days of August were a nightmare. They cut out the internet. I told myself that I’m going to bring as much good as I can through my art.”

For now, Shelby is happily continuing to experiment with different artforms. She has created a comic strip series called “Impeccable Life of Pets,” featuring her two cats and dog. Ever since her boyfriend purchased an iPen for her, Shelby has been obsessively creating new work. “I’m putting my whole self into it, and having the most fun time,” she says.

“Sometimes I think that I wasted five years of my life,” says Shelby, “or, rather, it took me five years to come back around to art. I kind of buried it inside for the longest time.” Although her time in art school in Belarus proved not at all gratifying, she has since learned that art doesn’t have to be formulaic. Although she appreciates landscape paintings and other forms of traditional art, she wants to make an impact with a different form of expression. “I want to show people that there are other things to look at,” she says. “I think it’s very important to bring to life the fact that there’s more for people to see.”