Lora Shelley began making paintings of women in diners 13 years ago, while she was a student at the Rhode Island School of Design. The work was expressionistic and empathetic, as if the artist was seeing through her subjects’ eyes. In those days, her waitresses liked to confront the viewer with intense stares, daring you to stiff them on the tip.
In the decade and a half since, Shelley has pursued her diner series the way a novelist works a theme from book to book. Her inspiration begins in childhood when, as a teenager in the New Jersey suburbs of Manhattan, a big part of her social scene was hanging out in diners. This developed into a general interest in the atmospheric eateries, especially the genuine ones built from reclaimed railroad cars.
“Diners have so much character, so much more tooth to them,” Shelley observes. “All different types of people pass through them. They’re common ground for everyone, a place where everybody’s life is a story line. And because they’re open all night, or used to be, there’s something a little dark about them, the underside of life you don’t know about because you’re sleeping.” And since Shelley’s a visual artist, there’s also an aesthetic aspect to a diner—“the economy of space, how well thought-out it is, and how every little space means something.”
The painter draws from personal work experience, too, having waited tables at a Jersey cafe and endured the long hours, sore feet, and rude customers that are the common lot of all short-order servers. (It’s practically a rite of passage, it seems, that at least once in every waitress’s career some jackass brings her to tears.) A feeling of solidarity with waitresses runs through Shelley’s paintings, an understanding of what it’s like to carry a heavy food tray, juggle a full dishpan, or steal a quiet moment.
Like a novelist, Shelley invents her characters from composites and finds they sometimes end up inhabiting her consciousness. Of the waitress on the cover, she says: “She’s tired, she’s hardworking, she’s tough. She can handle herself—if people mess with her, she’ll give it back to them. She knows what’s up in her own little world.”
Shelley’s diner pictures have gotten brighter and more colorful through the years. Today, they look less like late-night confrontations and more like encounters recalled from dreams. The women are still pouring coffee and serving food, but who for? An eerie emptiness closes in from the edges. There’s no one sitting at the table in our picture, no one to sop up the egg with the toast. The waitress seems to be working out of ritual or habit, and there’s something sacred about her inwardness. Still, the food she’s laying down looks so good. Could it be she’s just been waiting for us? For more images, www.lorashelley.com.