In just a few short years, Dorothy Shain has fashioned a career for herself any young artist would covet. The Greenville, South Carolina, native infuses her paintings with a vibrancy inspired by her travels—collages that echo the jungles of Vietnam; an oil of a street dog she encountered in Guatemala; mixed-media bikinis painted with Lowcountry herons. That soul-stirring sense of place, along with a knack for networking, has landed her exhibitions and artistic collaborations across the country: textiles with Atlanta’s Lacefield Designs, scarves with Dallas’s City Boots, stationery with Charleston’s Mac & Murphy, and now swimwear with Anthropologie. Even the actor and writer Mindy Kaling has commissioned a piece. But that’s not to say the path has been easy—from her studio at the Art & Light Gallery in her hometown, Shain just makes it look that way.
When did you first feel a creative spark?
My mom always dabbled in painting. When I was little, she had a studio in our garage. She could tell I was interested, so I took art classes, and loved it. In high school, I started to get more serious. I had a teacher, Susanne Abrams, really push me. At the time, we butted heads—we did not get along.
What was the problem?
She recognized if I worked hard, I could excel. That hadn’t hit me yet. I was struggling with friendship stuff—high school girls can be mean. I wasn’t doing well in school. Then one day, I took her advice, and just poured myself into art, and everything else got better. Probably because it’s so therapeutic. I landed in a different, positive group of friends. My grades started turning around; I was applying myself, and seeing results, which helped my confidence.
So you decided to pursue art at Southern Methodist University, in Dallas.
I had this college counselor who was like, “You’re probably not going to get in where you want to, because you haven’t done well till now.” And that was the first instance of someone really fueling my fire. Of someone pigeonholing me. So I was like, Screw that!
I applied everywhere she told me I couldn’t get into, and I got into every single place.
You were living in Charleston when you decided to become a full-time artist. What was the first year like?
It was so hard. I had so many side gigs. It took a really long time for things to get to a point where I could pay my rent just from the art. I had a family member come into my studio in the first two weeks, when I was just figuring things out. They said, “Nothing in here will ever sell. You need to get a real job.” I had just worked on this tiny little series, and they were like, “I hate to say it, but these are just dumb.” The next week, twelve of those little pieces sold.
You’ve collaborated quite a bit with other artisans. What have you learned?
You need to be choosy about whom you work with. In the beginning, my thought was, Say yes to everything. But you want it to be a true reflection of you, too. The person you work with, you want them to understand and value your work; and they want you to value theirs. You need to know what you’re both bringing to the table, from an art perspective and a business perspective.
Your parents played into your move back to Greenville, right?
My dad—he and his dad had an auto-parts store in Greenville for a long time, then my dad went into finance. He has
the coolest approach to business. Everyone he works with becomes a friend—he knows their birthdays, he knows their children are graduating, he goes to their grandmothers’ funerals. He used to say, “Never think of a meeting as a meeting. Think of it as sitting down to catch up with someone. Because the people you work with, you want to genuinely know about them, and you want them to be interested in you, too.”
You call your mother your “momanger” because she helps you make business plans. She also inspired a funny caption on Instagram: “an ode to all those powerful southern women, bless them but don’t mess with them…as my mom says, #theywillslamdunkyourass.”
She’s the epitome of that. Her dad passed away when she was little, and her mother raised her—my mom saw how hard she worked. When she married my dad, she ate dinner with his family one night. His mom had cooked this beautiful meal. Afterward, Dad and Granddad left the table to watch football. Mom was like, What? She washed dishes for hours. She was like, “That night, I slam-dunked his ass. I told him I wouldn’t have any more of that.” To this day, my dad is at the sink at night washing dishes.
You’ve created art to benefit causes such as the Mother Emanuel Hope Fund. Why is that important to you?
My sophomore year of college, I went on a human rights trip to Rwanda. I spent the week learning about the genocide there. Something spoke to me. When I started doing art, I wondered how I could merge those two passions. This year, I’m working on a scarf with artwork inspired by the new Cancer Survivors Park in Greenville—they have the potential to raise $50,000-plus.
And the Mindy piece happened after you chatted up her assistant at a dinner?
I was probably one too many margaritas in. I was like, “If she ever needs art, let me know!” Three months later, she reached out. It was a good lesson to me to always talk to whoever’s around you, because you never know. There’s a fine line when it comes to self-promotion—but if you want to make a living doing this, who else is going to do it for you?