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Shell Games

Martha Stewart Living, May 2008

At first glance, Amy Ramsey's images of fanciful animals surrounded by flowers and foliage seem like crewel embroidery. But look more closely and you realize her art isn't made of thread but of hundreds of tiny shells glued on a fabric-covered surface. She uses these little sea treasures, with their glistening colors and ornamental shapes, to create a whimsical universe linking nature and art. Who would guess that a butterfly's wings are coquina shells, a snowflake is made of sand dollars' teeth, or that a lion could flaunt a mane of seaweed?

Ramsey, a self-taught shell artisan from Virginia, is continuing a family tradition begun nearly 50 years ago by her grandmother Helen Coolidge Woodring, wife of Harry Woodring, a former governor of Kansas and the U.S. secretary of war from 1936 to 1940. Affectionately known as "Nana," Woodring was an accomplished artist who painted portraits of members of Congress. She developed a passion for shell art when her sister, a conchologist, gave her some colorful shells that she couldn't resist working with.



As a child, Ramsey took little interest in her grandmother's shellwork. But seven years ago, encouraged by her mother, she began making her first shell picture using shells from Nana's superb collection. "Working with shells relaxes me and makes me happy," says Ramsey, who, like her grandmother, has won several prizes at the Shell Fair and Show, held each March on Sanibel Island, Florida. It's the largest exhibition of its kind in the United States.

Ramsey's lighthearted subjects belie the painstaking work that goes into each design. First, she selects a frame, making sure there is at least an inch between the glass and the backing. Then, using tweezers, toothpicks, and glue, she builds animals, birds, and flowers from tiny shells and arranges them directly on a board.

Keeping her preliminary design in mind, Ramsey removes everything and covers the board with velvet or linen. She glues wires to the backing to connect the elements, and then she reassembles her flower-filled menagerie. "You start by envisioning one design, but you always end up with another," Ramsey says. "The shells tell you what they want to be." One of her favorite creations, a polar bear in a snowstorm, actually started out as a stallion galloping through a meadow.



Ramsey works in a guest room of her home that is stacked from floor to ceiling with boxes of shells, most of them inherited from her grandmother. In addition, she purchases shells online and collects them on the beach on Sanibel Island, one of the world's premier shelling grounds. Even shards are of value to the artist, who uses them for details like a bird's beak.

Each year, Ramsey completes about a half-dozen shell pictures, which sell for $200 to almost $3,000 each. In all of her works, she includes a few tiny shells that her grandmother had glued together and left behind among her collection. "I do it as a way to preserve Nana's legacy," she says.

Ramsey's art is part of a tradition of ornamental shellwork that dates to the 18th century, when fashionable European ladies whiled away the time making elaborately decorated objects to adorn their houses. The Victorians continued the tradition, cluttering their parlors with shell-covered knickknacks they made or purchased. Among the most prized pieces were sailors' valentines, octagonal wooden boxes topped with shell mosaics inscribed with sentimental messages such as "Forget Me Not." The boxes were once thought to have been crafted by lonely sailors on long voyages, but it's now believed that the shell valentines were actually souvenirs made in Barbados.

Today, shell art is a delightful way to create decorative objects that bring the natural beauty of the seashore into your home. Here, Ramsey shares her technique for building delicate little animals and flowers out of shells. Once you do it yourself, you will never walk on a beach again without stooping down to see what wondrous finds may lie at your feet.



Shell Games How-Tos

Ramsey's sister, Jennifer French, holds her grandmother's 1975 work Autumn, made of black mussels and red coral fans, among other shells.

A detail of the seascape Arctic Whaler, a shellwork by Woodring. It shows a schooner with a mast of white clam shells sailing amid coral icebergs.

Parrot in Bower, which Woodring made in the mid-1970s as a wedding gift for a friend; a tiny diamond is hidden within its many colorful shells.

Woodring's Balloons, from 1972, features scallop and coquina shells, starfish, and sea horses.

A detail of Crewel with Stag, with flowers made of scallop and mussel shells and leaves and stems cut from velvet; the finished work was reproduced on a Unicef note card.

Ramsey's Aesop's Fox and Grapes, which won her a first-place ribbon at the 2005 Sanibel Shell Fair and Show, the largest event of its kind in the United States, held each March on the island.

Ann Schutt, a shell artist and coauthor of "Sailors' Valentines: Their Journey Through Time," holds one of the many shellworks in her collection, Ramsey's Peacock Plumage, 2007, made from scallops, limpets, and blue and green mussels.

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Shell Glossary
1. Sand dollars
2. Disk dosinias
3. Pecten gibbuses
4. Baby ears
5. Augers
6. Sharks' teeth
7. Pecten sentis
8. Baby horse conches
9. Lightning whelk
10. Sunray venus
11. Olives
12. Scotch bonnet
13. Pecten muscosus
14. Jingles
15. Sea urchin spines
16. Sea urchins
17. Heart cockles
18. Asellus cowries
19. Land snails/Cuban polymitas
20. Blue mussels
21. Green tusks
22. Trivias
23. Blue-green limpets
24. Emerald nerites
25. Yellow nerites
26. Rice shells
27. Spirulas
28. Strawberry tops
29. Noble pectens
30. Kittens' paws
31. Wentletrap
32. Limpets
33. White tusks
34. Janthinas
35. Lion's paw
36. Cockles
37. Coquinas
38. Sunrise tellin
39. Fan scallop
40. Jewel boxes
41. Tellins
42. Tulips
43. Cup shells

More on Shelling at Sanibel

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