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Sanibel Shell Fair

Martha Stewart Living, February 2001

Though none of us was born from a scallop shell like Aphrodite, our appreciation of seashells is almost instinctive -- just ask any child who first holds one to his ear to hear "the ocean." And on Sanibel Island, Florida, one of the world's most renowned shell-hunting grounds, the Shell Fair and Show celebrates that appreciation. Held annually for four days during the first week of March, this year's fair (March 1 to 4) marks the event's sixty-fourth anniversary. The largest exhibition of its kind in the United States, it provides an opportunity to learn about shells in their natural state, and to see them put to use in all kinds of arts and crafts. And, like any small-town fair, it's also a lot of fun.

Inside Sanibel's historic Community House, the Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club, a group of devoted shell collectors, presents its juried show. Among the show's highlights are the many outstanding examples of shell art competing for prizes in almost fifty categories. These works are unlike anything most landlubbers -- or beachcombers -- have seen, including shells combined to make elaborate, traditional sailors' valentines or to mimic complex floral arrangements. There's even a category for floral arrangements that can be no larger than three square inches. In the scientific competition, specimens in the "single category are appraised for their quality and scientific accuracy. In the "multiple shell" category, one of the exhibits is merited on its success as an educational presentation.

Meanwhile, outside the main building is the less formal fair. Every Monday during the preceding year, Wanda Will and her Shellcrafters meet in the Sanibel Community House to make shell "critters" and crafts. Visitors can buy these works in the Shellcrafters tent. In the Live Shell Exhibit, aquariums hold sea creatures in re-creations of their natural habitats. In another booth, the shell "doctor," artist Phyllis Mason, fixes broken crafts purchased at previous fairs. The Raffle tent displays many sought-after pieces, donated by shell artists and retailers. At the Galley tent, visitors can get an assortment of food and beverages. In total, last year's Fair and Show raised about $40,000 to benefit the Sanibel Community House and local scholarships.

If you can't make the fair, however, don't worry; a visit to Sanibel at any time will leave you pleasantly shell-shocked. Pay your respects to Aphrodite, and satisfy your instinctive urges, with a tour of the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum. Or just take a walk on those famed shell-lined beaches.

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