On a fall night in 1997, a 23-year old painter named Shane van Pelt was having the biggest art show of his young career. The show was at the Gallery @ 678 Broadway in Manhattan. It was a long, wide-open space with wood floors. Van Pelt was fielding questions about his work from New York’s intellectual elite—the Ivy Leaguers, TV personalities, and literary types. He was playing host, promoter, entertainer, and artist all in one, and he was playing them well. His art was flying off the walls. He sold 14 pieces that night, that’s almost every piece he’d shown.
But he needed a break from the chaos and the glad-handing, so he stole away from the crowd, away from the slaps on the back and away from the admiration of strangers, and he snuck out to the fire escape off the second story overlooking West 3rd Street.
“I needed to chill out,” van Pelt says of the show nearly 20 years ago. It was the first major show of his career. Van Pelt was sharing gallery space with a sculpture, a photographer, and a poet, and the place was packed. It was so crowded you had to duck and squeeze by to get from one side of the room to the other.
Van Pelt sat on the fire escape for a few minutes and gathered his thoughts. How had he ended up here? The high school drop out. The guy who’d been on his own since he was 15. He’d hustled drawings to institutions in New Mexico, he’d worked a few jobs to scrape by, he’d slept in his car—and when his car broke down, he slept in an empty doghouse. He taught himself to draw and then to paint. And now he’s being called America’s leading visual genius by a noted New York Times journalist.
Hey! What are you doing up there? Get inside.
The gallery owner’s voice broke the moment of reflection. It was time for the artist to return to his show.
Today van Pelt’s work has developed a large following of collectors. His paintings are included in the permanent collection of the American Visionary Art Museum and he created the book cover for the 1998 edition of the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution, which was used for 10 years.
“He has developed his capability and techniques remarkably and focused his inspirations into extraordinarily well-crafted paintings,” says outsider art collector Grey Carter. “The works are often complex and intriguing, usually topical but subtle.”
Van Pelt has produced hundreds of paintings and drawings. He’s a vintage motorcycle collector, boxer, outdoor enthusiast, writer, and survivor of two heart attacks. He had his first one at 29. His last one was in 2014.
It’s ironic van Pelt has become a hero of the outsider art movement. Even today, after many years in the game, he’s not comfortable with the label.
The first time van Pelt approached art seriously was as a high school student in Yakima, Washington looking to earn a scholarship to the Art Institute of Seattle. A 10th grade teacher had encouraged van Pelt to focus on his drawing and apply. For a kid who had seen a lot of uncertainty already in his life, this was the kind of direction he was looking for. The first time he picked up a pencil with any purpose, it was in pursuit of a formal art education.
An education he never received.
Van Pelt had an unconventional childhood. He was born on a military base in Germany in 1974, but his parents split soon after his birth and he moved with his mother to the United States to Texas. When van Pelt was 10 and living with his mother, his father tried to re-enter their lives, but inevitably had to serve a previously incurred eight-year sentence.
Throughout his childhood, van Pelt moved with his mother and younger sisters around Texas, New Mexico, and Washington state. They lived with different boyfriends and family members; each situation brought its own challenges for the young artist. There was the boyfriend who was abusive. There was the religious aunt and uncle who threw away his CDs and burnt his books. Sometimes his mother would even criticize his drawings and take them away.
“Some of my first memories are drawing Popeyes in the back of my mom’s Mother Goose book and getting a spanking for it,” van Pelt says. “I was thinking, what the hell did I do wrong? That kind of stuck with me partially because I didn’t understand the nostalgic significance of the book.”
In high school, van Pelt wasn’t like his classmates. He had long blond hair and wore a leather jacket. He was sensitive and artistic, but coming from where he had, he wasn’t afraid to throw down in a fight. And he had plenty of opportunities. The grunge scene was coming into being in Washington as van Pelt got into high school. Weird was becoming cool, which didn’t sit well with van Pelt. He recalls, “I felt like, after the [grunge] scene broke the mainstream, that I was now a commodity and since I had struggled against many of these people who now tried to befriend me.”
He realized it wouldn’t work out for him in Washington. After being kicked out of a Christian reform school, and then kicked out of his mother’s house, van Pelt packed up his few belongings and drove his 1958 Volkswagen Bug to Gallup, New Mexico to live with his mom’s sister and her husband and work for them on their golf course.
The job and living situation didn’t last, but Gallup did. Van Pelt quit the golf course gig and moved out of his aunt and uncle’s house.
He slept in his bug and picked up a job as a waiter. When the bug crapped out, he started sleeping wherever he could find shelter.
“I lived in this doghouse and things were like as bad as bad can be,” van Pelt says.
As bad as it was, he still drew. While living in the doghouse, he took his drawing pad and pastels down to the local diner and drew the people there.
“I started drawing this one woman and when I got done with the piece, I was like, holy shit, this is exactly how I feel on the inside,” he says. “My inside emotions, my private thoughts, were coming out on paper.”
This was the moment van Pelt became an artist.
“I thought, now I understand what art is, it’s about me and the world I live in,” he says.
He got a studio apartment just off of Route 66 in the heart of downtown Gallup by pulling together some saved up cash. He was 17 and decided it would be his first studio.
“It had all this open space,” van Pelt says. “A friend of mine gave me a bunch of floor pillows and a gigantic chessboard. It was huge. It’s from Japan and was that Japanese-style table where it’s really squat to the floor.”
Van Pelt put his bed in the oversized closet and left the main room open to entertain his friends. He filled the room with paintings and pastels, and creatives from all over Gallup. This was a happy time. Van Pelt’s friends were photographers, painters, academics, and artists of all stripes. Although he was in his late teens, his friends ranged from teenagers like himself to accomplished artists in their 50s. Van Pelt saw the success of his friends and started to feel life as an artist was attainable.
“I would take prints to Santa Fe and I started developing friendships with artists in Santa Fe,” he says. “When I needed gas money I would take a stack of drawings and walk around the main touristy areas and go to the galleries. By the end of the day I’d have enough money to pay for gas and other stuff.”
Van Pelt met his wife in Gallup, a writer named Elizabeth Cohen. She was working on her first book at the time, a piece about the fist Navajo woman surgeon. Cohen was from New Mexico, but had spent the last 12 years in New York City, and she owned a place in the Lower East Side. The two met when van Pelt was 20. They moved in together in 1994. A year later they were married, and he returned with her to New York City.
In New York, van Pelt’s art was well received in art spaces, cafes, coffee houses, and bookstores. His first year in town, he booked three shows, one of which was the one that changed how he looked at his career.
“The sort of success I gained was a validation through the caliber of people who wanted my work,” van Pelt says. “In New York they are obsessed with pedigree. I would flaunt my lowbrow upbringing. Where did you attend school? I dropped out in the 11th grade. That was my attitude.”
For the next 20 years, he continued working, producing hundreds of paintings. He had a successful show in Binghamton, New York in 2004, and then opened a gallery in the downtown area and called it Open Gallery because of its unconventional hours, 9pm to 4am.
“I got a lot of night people, an interesting crowd for sure,” he says.
In 2005, van Pelt signed with Grey Carter, who has been representing him ever since.
A year and a half ago he experienced his second heart attack. Seven months ago, van Pelt received a heart transplant at the Mayo Clinic in Phoenix. He is recovering nicely. Now he splits his time between Phoenix, Gallup, Philadelphia where his girlfriend lives, and New York where his daughter lives with her mother.
After 40 years of grinding, fighting, and working, van Pelt is using his recovery as an opportunity to relax. He still paints. He’ll continue to work, but right now he’s living, and that’s what’s important.
“Many of my friends are high-paid, well-known artists,” he says. “Some I admire, others I don’t. My own success has had highs and lows, but I define my success by leaving the world of ignorance and dead ends and keeping true to my dreams.”