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Sea Shells by the Sea Shore

Sometimes I just get seized with an idea.  It might be the first line of a poem; a couple of bars of a song.  It might be the sense of a dream I had, a story beginning there somewhere.  Occasionally it might be an object, some material lying around that attracts my attention.

A few summers ago I made a table out of some gorgeous oak fence posts I had lying around.  I remember sitting outside in the yard, a couple of weekends in a row, looking at those posts, measuring them with my eye, thinking through the possibilities, juggling in my mind until I knew all the steps:  the lengths to cut; the best bits of wood to use where; how to join it all together invisibly.

Then something just seemed to click into place and I knew I was ready to begin.  Of course then, working the material, discovering it along the way.  That’s another whole process there: a give and take, a too and fro just like dancing.  There is a dialogue between you and the material.

Like this New Year”s Eve I went down to the beach before the sun went down, watched it all big and red hovering over the sea and I looked to the pebbles beneath my feet and there was this sea shell.  A clam of some kind.  It was really noticeable because the inner surface was the smoothest white pearly sheen and it had a pleasant smooth rounded shape.

It glowed at me so I picked it up and looked at it in the palm of my hand.  The outside of the shell was also worn smooth but it undulated in valleys and mountains of depth.  I stuck it in my pocket with the vague thought that I would do something with it one day.

New year’s day I wake up early with a jolt and like a possessed person I get out my modelling tools and sit gazing at this shell. My hands are tingling, flexing in their desire to mold and shape.  The smooth inner surface is beautiful but it”s got nothing to offer my imagination except its own sensuous liquid curves. 

I turn over and look at the other side.  I”ve never carved or sculpted anything before so I am timid at beginning.  No picture springs immediately to mind but I know the trick is to find the shape in the material.  You just imagine that there is a creature already in there just waiting for you to release it.

I start to work cautiously, using the contours, smoothing them, emphasising them.  The shell is layered and the more layers I remove the more translucent it becomes.  Some of the layers are dark:  stained with smudges and pools of green and brown.

Different tools suggest themselves as my hands becomes familiar with the work.  Sometimes I use the rotor making broad gestures into the material.  More often I take the finest tool and gently, gently scrape and tease.  My view is obscured by dust and I blow and wipe, each layer removed suggesting a new direction, a new subtlety.

14 hours later I realise that I am still doing the same thing, my hands now working automatically, unconsciously.  The clutter of teacups around me suggests that I have at least been hydrating myself.  Two figures have emerged.  I can see them now yet somehow I can still not see what I am making.  It is a collection of details.  No distance.

The next day I begin again.  I am more deliberate now.  This is his face, his nose, his mouth, his ear.  This is her face, her eyes, her mouth.  Here her arms sweep down,  here her bosom.  This is his staff.  This is a bowl.  I leave the house but the seashell and a cutting tool go with me.

As the sun sets on the second day I realise I am done.  I have reached the limit of my skill and besides, I like this smudging of detail.  It blurs meaning.  Is she stern?  Turning away from him?  Or shy, approaching him?  I like that I can still see it’s a natural object. The staining on the shell colours the folds of a robe or defines the shape of a face.

It is only as I am polishing the shell that I see I have carved a man in robes, leaning on a staff, his hands in prayer or supplication, a woman turned away from him.  The sweep of her arms and the line of her bosom the shape of a heart across her chest.  Between them a bowl.

For a while I am in love with this precious gift from the sea.  I have poured my energy and my love into it exclusively for two days and now I look at it and touch it, holding it up to the light, marvelling at this new thing that now exists in the world, however briefly. 

Does it mean anything?  Am I the mendicant, bowing in honour of the priestess of Tara?  Is that a begging bowl? Or is it the still surface of a mirror?  Does she come to me for guidance?  Or is it simply that I asked my mum and dad for some money today? :-)

I place the shell on the table I have been working on and I realise it is the oak table I made that summer.  One moment of inspiration supporting another.  I decide who I will give my little gift to and then I am finished.  Done.  A good start to the year.


This is a picture of the seashell burnished with graphite and brass


and this is the finished, natural item.


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