Photo by Toby Tomplay

Ready to roar: Artist Shelli Brown’s Rony the Tiger draws a socially distant crowd

We’ve all tried our hands at homemade sourdough and dalgona coffee during the height of COVID-19, but when local artist Shelli Brown began painting on her front lawn during socially distant block parties led by her musician husband, Toby Tomplay, she had no intention of starting the next corona-craze that might just be here to stay.

Meet Rony the Tiger. He’s cool, he’s casual. He literally drips with confidence. And peering out from behind his mirrored shades, he sees the world as it might be. Not full of failed baking attempts, multiple hurricanes, and toilet paper shortages, but of football fields packed with cheering fans, Jazz Fest arenas rowdy with revelers, and Mardi Gras memories in the goofiest of garbs. The best part? You can hang him up right in your own home.

Art by Shelli Brown

“I’m a self-taught artist, and started painting in my late teens, just playing around,” says Brown. “I graduated from LSU with a kinesiology degree, so I have a very figurative background, but I’ve never taken an art class in my life.”

A full-time painter since a friend encouraged her to take the leap in 2016 (and a part-time musician, often accompanying her husband), Brown’s best-known works look little like the tiger taking over social media. Her abstract nudes, poured into shape on the floor, are airy and elegant, and painted in private, whereas Rony found his start in an unusually public sphere, and with surprising inspiration.

“When people started bidding on my paintings during the parties, my husband suggested we start doing a Facebook Live auction series, where I paint while he plays,” says Brown. “And then, like everyone else, we started to watch Tiger King.”

Playing off Baton Rouge’s favorite mascot, and drawing on a memory of her friend wearing a pair of Mardi Gras glasses decked with a crown, Brown painted her first Rony and tapped into something her clientele couldn’t have known they wanted.

“Only a handful of months ago, we had never heard the term nonessential work,” says Brown. “My husband and I, being musicians, were some of the first to lose our jobs due to COVID. But right now, I’m happy that Rony is able to travel where we wish we could travel, or do things we wish we could do. It reminds me that art is essential, and that people still look for it in their lives.” and