Forming a tree from recycled newspaper, Shirley’s art has become more and more “abstract” yet appealing as her vision continues to deteriorate.

By Joan Ellison, Guest contributor

Shirley Ralston didn’t really like art when she was in elementary school. It was fun, but her work was never put up on the bulletin board with the “best” art.

All she remembers from her secondary school art classes was soap carving. None of it was very creative.

However, creative is exactly the word to describe Shirley’s work that is on display at the Pelican Rapids Public Library through the months of June and July.

Although Shirley’s formal training in art is only a few classes from Charles Beck and Carolyn Borgen, her creativity is boundless and fascinating. “We have this acorn shell, what can we do with it?”

Over the years, Shirley has made porcelain dolls, stained glass windows, fabric dolls, and marionettes. She has painted in water color and acrylic, sculpted paper, clay and fabric, and created hand-made books. Shirley’s art changed as she taught herself new techniques. Her art also changed as her vision deteriorated. When she was 57, Shirley was diagnosed with macular degeneration.

“When I was out walking, light poles didn’t look straight,” she said. “I’ll never go completely blind,” she explained, “but I might as well be. I can’t focus on things, it’s like walking around with Vaseline on my glasses.”

Her vision has progressively worsened, but she kept making art.

“It’s in you; the ideas are still there, the ideas are in my head but I can’t carry it through.”

One year when Shirley was decorating her Christmas tree she found a box of angels that she had made from clay and fabric. She wondered if she could still make them. She couldn’t see them well enough to copy them, but her fingers knew what to do. “I could make the shoes. With clay you can feel if you are doing it right.” She could no longer see well enough to paint their faces so she poked three holes in the clay for eyes and mouth and glued old denim fabric around their legs for jeans. Shirley created a “Feet of Clay” choir.

She has been fascinated with marionettes since second or third grade when she saw a marionette show at school.

“I wanted a marionette so bad,” she said. Years later, Shirley began creating her own marionettes out of wood, clay, fabric and string. “Most marionettes are ugly and imaginative,” She explained, “they have character.” Shirley’s are definitely ugly, but each one is unique and their character shouts out at you. As her vision changed she stopped putting irises in their eyes, and then finally stopped making them altogether.

Shirley created a series of clay dolls during the time she spent visiting her mother at the nursing home. She named each one. The personalities of the dolls overwhelmed their crippled old bodies through the expressions on their wrinkled faces and the accessories Shirley gave them – a bit of lace, a fishing pole, a red hat, a golf club. Each one looked real.


“I wish I could see how I look,” Shirley said. She is losing her color vision and always wears black socks so she doesn’t have to try to match them to her clothes. And yet, she always looks beautiful. any people don’t realize that she is nearly blind and sometimes the ones who do don’t interact with her like they used to. She recognizes many people by their size, shape, walks and voices. But sometimes she guesses wrong and then people are embarrassed.

“I like it when people tell me who they are,” she said. Shirley has given up driving and reading (she listens to audiobooks from the State Library for the Blind and Physically Handicapped), but she hasn’t given up her art, she keeps finding new ways to express her ideas.

“There are things I could do last year that I can’t do now – that’s the scary part,” she said. “I was feeling newspaper, thinking this feels kind of like paper birch, it’s black and white, I wonder if I could make a tree.” She tears strips from the Pelican Press and creates birch trees which she frames and sells at the Mercantile On Main, of which she is a founding partner.

As her vision deteriorates, Shirley’s art has become more abstract.

“I have all these little containers with all this stuff in it. Out walking, I find sticks – kind of cool shapes.” She laughed. “I have buckets of sticks. It keeps me sane.” Shirley has incorporated sticks into her newest pieces, collages of paper, paint and found objects which are on display at the library and also available at the Mercantile on Main.

Over the years, Shirley’s artistic pieces have ranged from precision work on her porcelain dolls and stained glass windows, to abstract collages of sticks, paper and paint. Each one of them is her way of carrying out the ideas that she can see in her head.