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Collaborations: Deborah Shelton

Updated: Aug 29, 2022

A true multi-disciplinary creative, Deborah has been, at various times in her life, a poet, a professional photographer, a cartoonist, both a teacher and student of English and French to name a few vocations and avocations. Her intrepid spirit has led her around the world, into biplanes and balloon baskets. She taught me how to sew, how to negotiate, how to forgo a fear of germs to get the best shot, how to appreciate the process as well as the product, and the joy of creative collaboration. She exposed me to Mad, Saturday Night Live, Jacques Brel, Mina Shaughnessy, and Anne Morrow Lindbergh. Together, we've racked up months of time spent in conversation about creativity and the creative process. When I was in high school, we did poetry slams and made costumes together. When I was in middle school, we built a replica of her childhood home together. When I was a kid, we negotiated the peculiar state of being gaijins in rural Japan together. It is with great pride and delight I have the privilege of calling her Mom. I couldn't have picked better. - CC

What did creativity look like for you in childhood?

I recently had a thought about that. I was in the first grade when I was first introduced to what I would call creativity. Our teacher had us do a scratch process greeting card, which I thought was the coolest thing I'd ever seen. We were given card stock about 4" x 6" in size and told to use our crayons to lay one color on top of the other onto the card stock. In other words, we were to color the whole card red, then blue, then green, etc. The color layers didn't have to be in any particular order. After we finished that, we were told to take some sort of pointed object, I don't remember what it was, and to scratch an image through the layers of colors. Maybe it was an unrolled paper clip. We were six years old and couldn't be trusted with very pointy objects. I scratched a Christmas tree with a star on top and balls hanging off the branches. The rainbow effect of the layers of colors fascinated me. I thought, Wow! If this is out there, think what else is out there. Thank you, Steve Martin, for that thought!

Of course, I was born to a very creative mother who used her talents to clothe us, and a multitude of customers, with her sewing skills. There didn't seem to be anything she couldn't do with her old Singer sewing machine. At first it was a treddle type then later an electric one. I learned to sew by watching her and asking her questions. I was always fascinated with her talents, especially watching her produce formal gowns for Mardi Gras balls and then decorate them with beads, sequins, feathers, and rhinestones. Then there were all the wedding dresses she made, not only for her daughters but for her customers in three parishes. She often made her own patterns and made sure every garment fit the customer perfectly. She was adept in the art as well as in the math of her trade.

From her I learned to make Barbie Doll clothes for my nieces's Barbies, and I also learned to make some of my own clothes, but I never really enjoyed that much. I found it too hard to fit myself. But I did make clothes for my daughter.

Mom saw that I showed an interest in art and always gave me birthday and Christmas presents that were some form of art: paint-by-number sets; drawing sets; a moccasin-making kit; a kid's sewing machine; things like that.

Another thing Mom did for all of us girls was enter us in beauty pageants, and she always made our gowns and wardrobes for the competitions. She loved pageantry and took us to many of the festivals that Louisiana is known for. One that she loved in particular was the annual Camellia Pageant where floats were decorated in camellias and all of the female participants carried bouquets of camellias. I was always astounded at the artistry of pageants in Louisiana and thought that I wanted to do things like that when I grew up.

I watched my older sister, Jean, draw and paint characters from Disney movies. That always impressed me.

As a teenager, I loved Mad magazine and practiced drawing the wild assortment of characters that the artists dreamed up. At one time, I thought I wanted to be a Mad artist and writer, but that seemed to be a dream too far afield. Our small-town high school didn't offer any form of art classes while I was there. However, when I graduated from high school, I had set my goal on learning art in college. I wasn't a patient person in those days, so when I had to take all of the core curriculum classes and art history for my first semester, I couldn't handle it. I wanted to learn art . . . period. At the time, I hated history of any sort, and having to get my nose stuck in art history book the size of War and Peace didn't fit my plan. I decided to change my major to English and get the heck out of college as fast as I could and then see what might happen.

So much more attractive than War and Peace!, not to mention easier to carry. - CC

During my time in high school, I found I was very good at writing - at composition. We were not assigned many creative pieces, but when we were, I always excelled at writing them. I didn't have to think about what to write. I just always knew what to say and how to say it. I suppose that can be considered a gift, and I know we all have our own gift or gifts. Composition just happened to be one of mine, but besides wanting to write and illustrate for Mad magazine, I never thought much about using writing as a career.

My approach to creativity at that time paralleled my approach to life. I never thought I had a choice about anything in life. I was just caught up in it - life. I guess that hasn't always been the case, but it was most often the case. I saw life as a river that just carried me where it wanted me to go. And maybe it did. I didn't fight it too much. I was resigned to just do the next thing, whatever that happened to be: get through twelve grades of school, get through four years of college, get through whatever was next. I knew I had a strong desire to just create things. In high school, I was always thrilled to be on committees to decorate the gym for homecoming and prom or to decorate cars for the football game parades. Mom always let me decorate the front porch at Christmas time. I loved doing things like that.

How did your relationship with creativity change as an adult? I got married, and four years later I became a mom. My relationship with creativity changed a lot when I realized what a creative child I'd given birth to. Immediately after you opened your eyes, the doctor noticed that you were very aware. He said, "I've never seen such an aware infant before." He was right. You seemed to be absorbing everything around you. And that has never changed. You're like a sponge absorbing sights, sounds, nuances. From the time your were two years old, you were drawing and reading and even conversing like a young adult. I don't think I've ever told you this, but you were like my little lab rat. I intensely watched you and creativity grow up side by side. I was given a remarkable opportunity to see the creative flow on a daily basis. From the time you could hold a crayon, you were always drawing something. I know I've told you this one: when we lived in that big two-story villa in Saudi Arabia, the one with chalky walls and floors, you were just two-years old, and you decorated the walls with crayons. Most of the drawings were what I called "roach people" and they were as tall as your arms could reach. They were sort of cigar shaped with thin little stick arms and legs and the correct number of stick fingers and toes. My creative challenge at that time was to figure out how to get the crayon roach people off the walls and not hurt your feelings. I'm still hurt. Just sayin'. - CC.

Ethan I, Nice, France Deborah Shelton, 2014

With very little for a two-year-old child to do on a compound populated mostly by adults, I read to you a lot. I ordered books from the States, and many family members and friends sent you books - mostly Sesame Street stories. Pretty soon, you were reading the stories on your own. Without going into too much detail, I have to say my greatest creative challenge as a mother was keeping a step or two ahead of you. I always wanted to make sure you had every opportunity to foster the talents I saw you were given. Thank you for that; the older I get, the more I appreciate what a gift that was. -- CC. What I didn't realize at the time was that you really didn't need me to do anything of that sort. You always knew what you were about, what you could do, and what you wanted to do. Unlike me who seemed to have no choices in life, you always knew that you had choices, and you just did what you felt you had to do. Maybe it wasn't so much an issue of choices as it was of direction. You always knew what direction you wanted for yourself. You seemed to have an internal mechanism that drove you, and it seemed you had to follow its leading no matter what. I remember you told me once, "Mom, women of your generation seem to always have to ask permission." You were right about that to a very large degree. But we somehow freed your generation to be yourselves without asking permission. You handed off the ball, and we GenXers brought it forward another ten yards, but I still managed to hold myself back through much of my twenties and thirties by thinking I needed someone's permission to do or say or be what I wanted to. I see Millennial and Gen Z women really running that ball into the end zone (I don't need anyone's permission to use football analogies!); they don't need anyone's permission, and it is truly inspiring to witness. - CC

That was my creative challenge while I was a young and inexperienced mother - rearing a child who didn't ever think she needed to ask permission because she always knew what she wanted and went headlong after it.

I think most women might say the same thing about their lives as young mothers. We would probably all agree that our creativity was directed toward giving our children the best opportunities possible to help them succeed in their own lives - whether they wanted those mom-made opportunities or not.

Ethan II, Nice, France Deborah Shelton, 2014

What does creativity look like for you now, as opposed to twenty years ago?

As opposed to forty years ago? That too! - CC

Let's start with forty years ago and then go to twenty. Forty years ago I was intent on helping you develop your creativity. I saw my challenges in providing your needs. All of them. Reference your hierarchial charts of human needs - yours and Maslow's. The invisible person in those charts are your parents. It was contingent upon us to provide the things you needed, perceived or otherwise. Fair. That did provide me the privilege of following my creative imperative. I suppose I mean that I will easily forgo food and sleep to scratch the Creative Itch. -- CC. Then the time came when you left the nest. My greatest challenge creatively at that time was to regain my personal equilibrium. You didn't need me anymore, so I had to set out to "find myself". I hate to even use that expression because it's such a cliche now, but I really did go through that. The military life was behind us as a family. Our little tripod family - father, mother, only child - was now back to husband and wife. It was a tumultuous time in our lives, particularly mine and your dad's. The tripod only had two legs and didn't stand up on its own very well anymore. You know the struggles we faced. You wanted your independence. We tried to give it to you as much as we could, but I wasn't ready to let that happen all at once. I wasn't ready to allow myself to think you could succeed without my help. You didn't need me, but I needed you. My heart was ripped to shreds when you left. So forty years ago, my creativity took a drastic turn. I had to find out what I was all about irrespective of being a military wife and mother. My gyroscope needed to be re-set. How was I going to do that?

I went back to school and studied photography. I'd always had an interest in it. Through photography I learned so much, not only about the art, craft, and science of it as a medium of expression, but I learned about me. I learned that I could give myself a chance to fall short of certain creative and artistic marks and not consider myself a failure. I learned that I had certain artistic strengths and certain weaknesses and that I could be patient with myself through those weaknesses and take the time to learn what I needed to know. I had to work hard at being patient with myself through the process of my photography education, but all I had at that time was time, and I had to fill it up, and the best way to do that was through something that creatively satisfied me. Photography did that for me on many levels.

So, to answer the other part of that question - "as opposed to twenty years ago?"

Regarding photography: Twenty years ago I was a producing photographer. I was experienced in classic, contemporary, and creative photography. I realized not everyone loved my work, but many did, and I was able to barter my skills for their dollars. That was somewhat satisfying, but the most satisfaction comes from my ability to do what I want with photography and digital imaging and not have to do what others want me to do or expect me to do. The only limit to creative expression via those two media is the imagination. I realize my imagination isn't as creative as it once was, but as long as I can see, I can still develop my imagination through those media. I know this about myself. I am a life-long learner. I will always be trying to reinvent myself creatively - taking photography and digital imaging to the outer limits of my imagination. I know I'm not as creative or imaginative as so many others, but I'm comfortable with what I know and what I can do with that knowledge. To me, every moment of life is a "Kodak moment". I read somewhere that photographers are preservationists, and that is so true for me. I want to preserve as many moments as I can photographically, to hold onto them, to capture them and not let them go. Maybe that is because life is just so darned special and so darned fleeting at the same time. Maybe it's because I feel time just isn't on my side. So many images, so little time. So now, twenty years later, I am free to do what I want to do with photography, with digital imaging, and with my time. That's a darned good place to be, and I am so very grateful for it.

Ethan III, Nice, France Deborah Shelton, 2014

What are the greatest opportunities you see in your daily life for creativity? Every moment is open to creativity; it doesn't have to mean producing a painting, a photograph, a book, a song, a dance, or anything of that sort. I believe each of us is born with what I like to call "the creative imperative". Each of us has to create. We cannot help it. It can be making breakfast. It can be making a flower arrangement. It can be making a baby - and it seems that humans are particularly good at that. Beyond that kind of creativity, I see it as the essence of problem solving. I think I've always been a good problem solver. I've had to be because my life traveling the globe with a child into remote places has required it. Life simply requires us all to be problem solvers. And what's the best tool for solving problems? Creativity. Thinking up new ways to do old and new things and do them more efficiently has been the high water mark of humanity. It's called progress. It's called "Velcro". It's called "Super Glue". It's called "Post-it Notes". It's called "Pampers".

There's a thought that comes to mind quite frequently - especially when I'm driving - because driving affords me a panoramic view of the world out in front of me. This is that thought: Humanity has managed to take the raw elements of this planet and produce everything from plastic bottles to space craft. Earth, wind, fire, and water. Think about it. What else is there for us to work with? That's pretty darned remarkable. That's creativity.

What do you feel are your biggest impediments to creative thought?

Other people saying IT can't or shouldn't be done. Other people who say that shouldn't be listened to. - CC

Ethan IV, Nice, France Deborah Shelton, 2014

What's creatively inspiring you in this moment?

Moving from Louisiana to New Mexico to be closer to my daughter, which means setting up yet another house to live in. I get to redecorate, which I love doing. But also, I really like the artistic and creative atmosphere of the desert southwest, especially New Mexico. It's a place that has its own breath. Its own life force. I think I'm going to see this period of my life as the most creative so far. I want to paint - a lot. I want to slow down and take my time and paint as the Spirit moves me. Maybe I'll photograph less and put more of that energy into simply slowing down.

I also want to finish editing the book I'm working on, and then I want to start compiling my own book(s). I want to inhale the years that I have left on planet Earth and exhale - very very slowly.

Ethan V, Nice, France Deborah Shelton, 2014 Deborah possesses terabyte-upon-terabyte of photographs from the last forty years of her creative journey. When I asked her to share images of work she is currently most fond, she chose this series of Ethan, a little boy she happened upon in a restaurant when she and my father were visiting France in 2014. Deborah has always had a knack for connecting with people and finding the ageless humanity in them -- I see that in these photographs.

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