By Cory Golden
Enterprise staff writer
WOODLAND — The ceramic mural adorning the Yolo County Administration Building’s north wall tells the tale of the county’s agricultural bounty.
It also says much about the self-taught Davis artist who created it: 56-year-old Susan Shelton, who has grown her career from production pottery to public art and private commissions.
“It’s like a puzzle. You need to have a particular outcome,” Shelton says of sketching, carving, glazing and firing a mural like “From the Ground Up.” “You need to think about your audience and what’s being represented, but you don’t leave yourself behind.”
First, there are the colors: vibrant blues and yellows, reds and greens.
There’s much in Shelton’s work inspired by Mexican pottery. She grew up in Mexico City and in Tucson, Ariz., before graduating high school in Burbank. She moved north to attend UC Davis.
The mural depicts sunflowers, corn, cattle. There are farmworkers and a 4-H member, a tomato truck and a crop duster. There’s a heron soaring over a rice field, a plein air painter, a roadside caution sign with the silhouette of a tractor.
“I love that I live in a place that has that sign,” she says.
The mural shows Shelton’s love of detail, like that on a 1953 oliver 77 road crop tractor. Step back and you’ll see the mural is laid out like an aerial photograph of ag land.
Shelton arrived at UC Davis as a pre-med major, studying bacteriology before turning to nutrition. As a junior, she took a wheel thrown pottery class, as a fun way to relieve stress. She discovered a new passion.
After graduation in 1981, she sold Birkenstocks part-time and began building her business, one piece of pottery at a time.
While other artists may suggest much with a simple line, Shelton worked painstakingly on one small swallowtail butterfly on a mural measuring 8 feet by 16 feet.
“I think that comes from having a background in biology and studying things all the way down to a molecular level.”
Among her other public works: a seal for UCD’s College of Biological Sciences. Her inspiration: the work of 19th century zoologist Ernst Haeckel and the shape of a diatom, a form of phytoplankton.
The county mural also shows of Shelton’s love of storytelling, from the picking of tree fruit to a toddler (inspired by her daughter Rosemary) eating a peach.
Shelton’s own story found her selling pottery at art shows and, for more than 20 years, at The Artery in Davis.
She has moved away from production work, especially since 2001, when she and another local artist, Donna Billick, were selected to create a Spanish-Mexican seal for the Capitol featuring a mixture of Spanish and indigenous imagery.
Among Shelton’s other public pieces: a seal for former California First Lady Maria Shriver’s Minerva Awards, recognizing women who’ve worked to make positive changes in the state. Now, Shelton’s working on another mural for the UCD Student Community Center.
Winning the competition to create art for the county building was important, she says, because it was a public setting and a story she wanted to tell.
A grant-funded project with support from YoloArts and ArtPlace America, the mural took six months to complete before a February deadline. Thought not particularly profitable, it doubles as a sort of billboard for her ability.
“There’s a lot of times when you make (that kind of) calculation,” she says.
Working with private clients on murals, fountains, furniture and sculptures in a university town has afforded her the chance to do a number of unique pieces, like sturgeon and nematodes. She’s at work now on piece for a client’s pool area depicting cosmic microwave background radiation.
The county mural shows Shelton’s love of collaboration, too.
It’s framed with tiles she created depicting suns rising over fields, cattle and tractors, but painted by farmers, migrant laborers and county employees.
At a Farm Bureau meeting, she handed brushes to a dozen or so farmers. Some grumbled. Soon, though, they were adding their own touches, like tomatoes in fields and geese in the sky.
Shelton says she enjoys the chance to work with people away from her home studio, where she often toils for 10 hours a day. She also teaches, working with YoloArts and the Yolo County Office of Education and, since 1991, has worked one or two days a week as an interpreter for the courts.
Key to her business blossoming has been the support of her husband, John Mott-Smith, the county’s climate change consultant (and an Enterprise columnist) and daughters, Isabel and Rosemary. Over the years, Shelton and her husband have made careful budgetary choices as she developed her business.
“It’s definitely helped to have a partner,” she says.