March 3, 2024

String Theory

Benzie man confronts chaos by creating art, contributing funds
By Ross Boissoneau | Oct. 10, 2020

For Josh Shelton, the restrictions imposed by the pandemic were felt more keenly than for many others. Like many other people with a learning disability who were forced out of their daily routine and couldn't engage in social interactions, Josh struggled with the new normal. 

His sister, Jill Robinson, said the enforced isolation caused anxiety for Josh; he had worked at Interlochen Arts Academy, she said, and when it closed at the outset of the pandemic last spring, he didn' fully understand why he was being kept home. He was at a loss. 

That’s when Robinson’s daughter, Mykayla, suggested Shelton try making some string art, wrapping strings around nails to create patterns and images. Shelton took to it with a vengeance. With the help of his sister and his niece, he was able to channel his energy and anxiety into intricate pieces. “He did some personal projects and made some Christmas gifts,” Robinson said.

As Shelton continued creating, his family wanted to showcase the art to those outside the family. Jill and Mykayla created a Facebook site to market the pieces.  “We posted it, and it took off,” said Robinson, much to Shelton’s joy. “He got a lot of reactions, and he loves it.”

The online marketplace has enabled the family to actually market Shelton's artwork beyond the immediate area. He has received requests from around the state, even out of state. Earlier this summer he made a map of Michigan for a customer in Indiana. “It’s amazing how far it’s gone,” Robinson said.

Robinson said the initial inspiration came, in part, from the projects she and Mykayla had undertaken as they, too, were struggling to cope with the new world created by the pandemic. The two had decided to keep busy and help by making masks (she figures they’ve made around 1,500); Shelton likewise wanted to do his part to help. Not only does he see that his string art makes people smile, he as donates some of the proceeds he earns to causes close to his heart: Special Olympics and the Tim Tebow Foundation.

“He gets excited and says ‘It’s my way of giving back.’ He recognizes the world is so sad and feels blessed to be able to bring people joy,” said Robinson.

Each project starts with pieces of wood, which he stains or paints in various colors. Then Robinson does the nailing, and Shelton visualizes the pattern and "strings" it to life around the nails. Many of the pieces feature fairly simple geometrics, like letters of the alphabet, musical notes, and words or short phrases, but Shelton also has tackled more intricate designs, such as animals and insects. Each piece can incorporate pegs and hangers so they can be used as wall art or simply propped up in a more utilitarian way.

The pieces take a varied amount of time to make, depending on the complexity. Simpler ones can be completed in a day or less. “There’s a prep day [to get] the boards ready. Some three in a day, some are more detailed and complicated. They take a little longer,” said Robinson. Depending on size and complexity in the art's creation, prices range from $10 to $20 for most of the pieces.

While Shelton is pleased to be able to make money from the pieces, his sister said the thing that makes him happiest is that he’s been able to raise money for worthy causes. “He’s got over $500 for (both) Special Olympics and the Tim Tebow Foundation,” Robinson said.

Shelton posted a video to his Special Creations Facebook site thanking supporters for their help in providing funds for the Tim Tebow Foundation’s “Night To Shine.” Night To Shine is a church-based prom-night experience for persons with disabilities 14 and older. “I have raised $500 for Night To Shine, and it’s all because of your great support,” he says in the video.

This year’s Night to Shine was hosted by 721 churches in all 50 states and 34 countries, with 115,000 guests and 215,000 volunteers. Due to the pandemic, Night to Shine 2021 will be a virtual experience. 

Shelton himself has competed in Special Olympics and was disappointed it was canceled due to the virus this year. “The fact there’s no Special Olympics has been a big stressor for him,” said Robinson.

Anxiety, meet relief: “It’s been a very calming thing for him,” Robinson said of Shelton’s projects. “He’s a different kid when he does string art. He’s excited to make people happy.”


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