Pin It

On the Cover: Diner: Eggs, Coffee, Toast & Jelly 

click to enlarge _Diner: Eggs, Coffee, Toast & Jelly_, Lora Shelley, oil on panel, 2006.
  • _Diner: Eggs, Coffee, Toast & Jelly_, Lora Shelley, oil on panel, 2006.

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.

Speaking of...

  • Diner 2.0
  • Diner 2.0

    Grazin' offers comforting farm-to-table fare in a diner setting.
    • Nov 30, 2011
  • In Memoriam

    Reader submitted poetry.
    • May 27, 2009
  • Thread by Thread
  • Thread by Thread

    Erika Alexia Tsoukanelis describes her escape from the rigidity of mall fashions and explores stores in the Hudson Valley that cater to individuality.
    • Jul 29, 2008
  • More »

Comments

Subscribe to this thread:

Add a comment

Readers also liked…

  • Carrie On

    • May 1, 2016
  • Field and Dream: Collaborative Concepts at Saunders Farm

    Over 70 artists from the Hudson Valley and beyond have assembled animal-friendly sculptures to complement the surrounding landscapes—grazing cows and horses are imagined to admire the pieces while they dine.
    • Sep 1, 2015

Hudson Valley Events

submit event

The Joy in Detail: The Incised Paintings of Elayne Seaman, a Retrospective

Feb. 23-March 16 — The exhibition is comprised of a selection of Seaman’s paintings created on...

North East Watercolor Society Members’ 2017 Show

Mondays-Fridays. Continues through March 22 — Watercolors are displayed by artist members of this premiere watercolor organization....

View all of today's events

Latest in Visual Art

  • On The Cover: Tatana Kellner
  • On The Cover: Tatana Kellner

    Monoprints by Tatana Kellner will be exhibited as part of the show "The World After January 20, 2017: Works by Contemporary Artists and Poets" at Vassar's Palmer Gallery.
    • Feb 1, 2017
  • Art of Business: Catskill Art & Office Supply
  • Art of Business: Catskill Art & Office Supply

    Owner, Paul Solis-Cohen, speaks to over three decades of success for Catskill Art & Office Supply.
    • Feb 1, 2017
  • Parting Shot: Lisa Durfee
  • Parting Shot: Lisa Durfee

    Lisa Durfee’s documentation of unnoticed parts of shabby chic Hudson currently being shown at the Hudson Opera House.
    • Feb 1, 2017
  • More »

More by Timothy Cahill

  • Bronze Ages

    “Cast Images: American Bronze Sculpture from the Metropolitan Museum of Art” continues at the New York State Museum through February 24, 2008.
    • Nov 30, 2007
  • Sanam

    The idea for the painting _Sanam_ came to Troy-based artist Jon Gernon, as he puts it, in a “flash” when he saw a family friend wearing a T-shirt she’d made based on the “Coexist” bumper sticker.
    • Nov 30, 2007
  • December's Featured Contributors

    Joseph Dalton, William Doiron, Michael Fallarino, and Nina Shengold contribute to December's issue.
    • Nov 30, 2007
  • More »

Hudson Valley Tweets