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Saturday, October 26, 2013

Shell Art

copyright, Jim Lane
Conch art, from Mexico's Passion Isle
A shell engraved
Some time ago I ventured that with enough creative ingenuity, virtually any substance can be the stuff from which art is derived. I've demonstrated this in displaying balloon art, car art, snow sculpture, ice sculpture, flower art, and probably several more which don't immediately come to mind. Two or three years ago as my wife and I enjoyed a day of rest and solitude on a sparsely populated island beach near Cozumel, Mexico, I came upon what I'll call, for the sake of simplicity, shell art. I couldn't resist. Employing my best bargaining talents, I managed to obtain for around $35. a sculptural shell grouping in the shape of a floral arrangement made entirely from the tail portion of three conch shells (above). I think the original asking price was around $75. The native artist was obviously quite proud of his work and reluctant to part with it, but, hey, I was a tourist. That's what tourists do.
You'll "shell" out a bundle for these fashion statements--not exactly scuff proof.
Presumably a "hard shell" crab.
Shell art, like virtually all art, can be divided into three categories, that which decorates, imitates, and originates. My conch flower arrangement falls into the last category even though it imitates somewhat a group of flowers. However, it does so within the confines of its original character. It does not "pretend" to be a rose, or any other identifiable blossom. The same can be said for the engraved shell (above, left) in which the natural color variations serve as a backdrop for the engraved figural image. As clever as they might be, the footwear directly above is merely decorated with shells, in effect, glorified shoe polish.

It's questionable as to whether this work is actually made of
shells or if they are applied over a sculpted base.
The shell Cameo Gonzaga depicts
Ptolemy II and Arsinoe II. It
dates from the third century BC.
In the imitative category we should consider the oldest form of shell art--the cameo. Of course, not all cameo's are made of shells. Most, in fact, are layered quartz of one type or another. Glass is also sometimes used. It's said that the popularity of 19th century cameo broaches and pendants derives from their discovery in the newly excavated ruins of Pompeii where numerous examples of such shell art had survived for centuries. Apparently the Romans were quite fond of such personal ornaments. Most often portrait profiles were carved into layered sections of conch shells. Like much of the art from the Mediterranean area, this delicate art form seems to have originated in Egypt as illustrated in one of the oldest examples, the Cameo Gonzaga (right), from the third century BC. Shells have long been used in jewelry, but also lend them well to being incorporated into various types of mixed-media as Sandra Wheeles and Daphne Cox have done in their stained glass creation (below). And for sheer audacity, check out the "street" art design (bottom) employing nothing but colored shells.

The Nautilus shell is used to suggest a Madonna and Child in this stained glass creation by Sandra Wheeles and Daphne Cox.

The beach meets the street.

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