Junk heap kids

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Thomas Shelton shares his home in Rockaway, New Jersey, with his wife, small dog, and countless creatures which look to have clawed their way out from a scrap heap deep inside the imagination of H.P. Lovecraft. Shelton is the father of these eccentric little guys, though his wife tends to name them.

“I’ve been doing this for what seems like forever. Fifteen, maybe 20 years,” Shelton told me, as we stood in his basement workshop, the eyes of his creations fixated on me. “But it was only in the past five that I really found my calling.” By “calling,” he means that he had finally achieved what so many artists seek but never find – clarity of vision. It was about five years ago that Shelton began to focus heavily on creating his unique work by utilizing recycled parts picked up from yard sales, flea markets, and wherever else interesting things (or pieces thereof) can be found. Some of his creatures have faces composed of dented sardine cans, others feature old tin Jell-O molds with tarnished silverware appendages. It’s these unexpected materials that give Shelton’s work a sense of gritty existence all their own.

“I like the distressed look of the old cans, that they’ve been around,” he said. “I like showing that.”

In the corner of his basement, illuminated by amber-hued work lamps, Shelton recalled when he initially came upon the style which would define his work. “I was in a dark place then, and I thought to myself that we’re only here once.” Gesturing toward a table where a large collection of his otherworldly figures stood, he continued, “I really think that this is why I’m here.”

Shelton pulls his inspiration from all over, primarily nature, but also often his dog. “See this underbite?” he asked, pointing at a figure roughly six inches in height, crookedly smiling at me from a worktable. He nodded toward his dog, lying by our feet. Suffice to say I saw a resemblance there.

His artwork is surreal to say the least, but also falls within the greater category of what many refer to as folk art. Shelton settled on calling his business What the Folk Art. He launched his website, whatthefolkart.com, in 2010 and has gone on to acquire significant praise for his work, showing in street fairs such as the Newport Folk, and Hoboken Art and Music festivals. His work appears as permanent fixtures in the Team Love RavenHouse Gallery in New Paltz, NY, and at the American Folk Art Museum in New York City.

Still Shelton remains humble. “I’m self taught. I never went to art school,” he said. “I’m not even sure if I’m doing it right.”

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