Shirley Phelan Art

My Story

Shirley Phelan

My art, like the rest of my life, is eclectic. I have many interests, and my paintings reflect this. The inspiration for my work is the world around me, I paint what I see, or rather, what I want to see. Some years ago I visited the Crazy Horse Memorial in South Dakota and found myself drawn to his story and the stories of many other Native Americans. In museums across Wyoming and South Dakota, there are hundreds of old black and white photos of Indigenous people taken by Edward S. Curtis. Curtis was commissioned by J.P. Morgan to document as much of the traditional life of his subjects as possible. Curtis' black and white images capture the intensity of his subjects and often, the truth of their existence. I often use Curtis' images in my ongoing "First Citizens" series.


In this series, I want to capture the spirit and nature of these incredible people. I am not Native American. However, I feel a connection to my subjects and want to show the beauty of their inherent dignity, even in the face of the offensive treatment they continue to experience at the hands of the people of the United States.  They simultaneously emerge from, and disappear into the canvas, as Native Americans emerge from the earth and are increasingly disappearing back into it. I paint the canvas with a palette knife to create a background that has no form. The results of this part of the process often surprise me.  Once I finish the background, I choose a subject that I feel connects with it. 


As I have been working on the series, a remarkable event occurred. The first two Native American women were elected to the United States Congress. “New Voice” is a portrait of Deb Haaland, one of these fantastic women. Her personal story inspires me and therefore, am motivated to continue with this series.

"Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear."

Mark Twain

Contact Me


Truckee, CA, USA




San Francisco, CA, USA

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