When asked why he became a painter, John Shelton had a simple answer.
"That's what I am – that's what I do," he said.
Shelton started painting in eighth grade, and when he grew older, he said he kept his career always in some corner of the art world.
He studied art in college, and Shelton worked as a graphic designer, as an illustrator for a publishing company, repaired frames for collectors and helped acquire and sell art for dealers in addition to his own painting.
"When you do this, you gradually change, and you gradually learn to make a living through it," he said. "So many things that I've done have always been art related."
Originally from Columbus, Georgia, Shelton is based in Grantville. His studio – filled with art supplies and painting – is tucked inside the city's old bank, the site of an infamous robbery in 1932. The thieves tied up a teller and put him in the vault, Shelton said, and then made their escape in Model-T Fords, with stolen coins flying out in a trail behind them. Their flight was short and ended with their demise in a police shootout.
Shelton arrived in Grantville in 1995. He lived and worked near Atlanta while his wife lived and worked in Columbus. The two needed a place equidistant from the two cities and found Grantville right in the middle.
His early work focused on nature, Shelton said, and was influenced by his childhood in Columbus.
"I was an outside kid – had sort of a Tom Sawyer-like childhood, and so I liked nature," he said. "I developed this basic love for the land. So when I began to experiment (with) being a painter, I wanted to put that in there."
Nature is more than just subject matter for Shelton. Some of his paintings are made using colors he harvested from excursions to areas around the state.
"One time I went down there and I harvested about 20 colors and actually did a couple paintings using the paint. I mean using the dirt itself, ground up. I sort of played around with making paints," he said gesturing at a wide landscape of Providence Canyon in his studio.
For a while, Shelton's work transitioned away from landscapes and into abstract art.
His abstract work features shapes without clear forms. He said his goal is for the shapes to be anything that a viewer of the work wants it to be, no matter his intentions.
"It could either be people or trees or anything in nature. It's exploring geometric expression," he said. "It was made so that other people could bring their own thoughts to what it might be. This could be anything. I do them and people say, 'I see this and I see that.' It gives them something to interpret. It's not just me always telling people what something is."
The idea of viewer interpretation continued in another of Shelton's pieces, titled "The Entrance of Christ into New York in 1984."
The piece features Jesus riding a donkey down a Manhattan street flanked by crowds of people from cultures and backgrounds across the world.
Shelton said the idea was to show how different groups and beliefs would react to the return of Jesus.
The crowd extends on a Z-axis toward the viewer, with little wooden cutouts protruding from the piece to make it even larger.
Presidents, members of The Beatles, Marilyn Monroe and others can be seen in the crowd.
Today, much of Shelton's work focuses on the human figure. His artwork includes paintings of nude models, but his interest in abstract art still shows up in some of his paintings.
The models in these paintings are rendered from different overlapping angles. Although the lines cross over one another and meander, the figure and form from each angle is still identifiable, complete and separate from the others.
"I didn't want to do it like everybody else does. I wanted to sort of find my own way," he said.
Some of his human figure paintings feature a model from three or four angles, but his piece "Seven Sisters, Seven Dimensions" has a model painted from seven angles with different expressions on her face.
Art critics have taken note of Shelton's unusual approach to painting the human body.
"It can be said that Shelton has invented a new manner of capturing the essence of the human figure that, in hindsight, seems to share ideology with some elements of cubism and surrealism, but to be more precise, British surrealism … The result is a strangely delicate while intrinsically potent line of work that forces the viewer to think in an attempt to understand the relationship between the forms and contours that come together in perfect harmony on canvas," wrote Timothy Warrington, an art critic, during a showing of Shelton's work in London.
Shelton said many of the techniques he uses aren't in vogue with the art world, which currently favors installations and conceptual art.
But when he's travelling, whether in the U.S. or internationally, Shelton said he'll see young artists studying classical art.
"It's a lot like a blues musician. Because I tell you one thing, a true blues musician, you cannot pull their guitar from their fingers. They'll die with it in their hands," he said. "No matter if they're the only person out there, all by themselves, in a little shack in Mississippi and nobody is around for 50 miles. But if you just happen to be going by and you hear them playing, they'll be playing what they love."