human behavior

Seashell Art that Isn’t Ugly

Posted in Art, Crafts by humanb on June 25, 2013

No woman can visit a beach without picking up seashells. It’s a biological impossibility. Collecting shells is like a female tic – a disruptive compulsion that inevitably tarnishes every trip to the shore we women take.

Half of the time we throw them away before we get back to the car. If the shells actually make it home, most of us will stash them in a drawer, leaving them to rattle, break, and take up space for years until we can’t remember when and where we collected them. (Or why.)

For those of us who actually display them, I’d wager less than 5% of us manage to do so in a way that isn’t hideous. This usually takes the form of a small collection of carefully chosen, larger specimens in a simple glass container.


What the rest of us do with our shells can only be described as a right hot mess. Google “seashell art” and “seashell craft” and you’ll see what I mean.

Making anything worth displaying out of seashells is almost impossible, because seashell art isn’t just kitsch. It’s ugly. I’m not sure why it’s so ugly when individual shells are so pretty. Maybe because shells are little more than glorified sea carcasses. They’re all that’s left of a bunch of dead animals, after all, and what’s so beautiful about a pile of bones?

Well I was determined to find out, and so resolved to make something aesthetically pleasing out of the seashells that I’d collected with my driftwood in Tasmania. Bear in mind that I went to Tasmania 13 months ago, so this project took a long time to come to fruition. I spent most of that time struggling to figure out what to do with the darn things, before embarking on a horrific failure of a project. The result was actually terrifying. So I packed up the surviving shells in my frustration and threw them to the back of the closet. I still couldn’t bring myself to throw them away though – convinced as I was that there was something worthwhile to be done with them. I just needed more time, I told myself, and a little inspiration.

In the end, my inspiration had always been there. It actually came from Tasmania all those many months ago, through the display window of a high-end tourist shop that was closed on the day I’d left town.


I don’t particularly like this piece. It’s boring, for one thing. But at least it’s not ugly. On the contrary, it has a casual, coastal sophistication about it because it’s simple.

And that is the key to seashell art that isn’t kitsch.

The frame is plain white wood with a flat profile. The mat is also white with multiple, clean cut-outs. The shells are all the same – in color, size and species. (Is it species?) And the arrangement is uniform: the southwest orientation of each shell, identical. Only the rotation of the shells differs, to reveal a central diamond pattern.

This is how you make seashell art that’s safe. But what about art that’s beautiful and compelling? Perhaps the mat could be bolder and the collection of shells more interesting. Too bad then, that my Tasmanian seashell collection represented only the most common varieties, and that I was only willing to use the mat board I already had in the closet.

But I’m still pretty satisfied with the results.


The mats are all the same size: 11 x 14 with long, rectangular windows. I grouped the shells by similar pattern, shape or color, but not size.


The mats are all white, but not the mounting boards, which differ in keeping with what I could find in the house, and what seemed to work best.


In one instance, the similarity of the shells is harder to discern, so the result is even more interesting, if not elegant. It dances on the border between pretty and ugly and just one more shell in the mix would have crossed that line.


The piece most like the one in that Tasmanian shop window is also the least interesting, and for the same reason: its uniformity. It’s pretty though.


Not content with using only most of my shells, I opted for smaller (5×7) works to use the remaining ones worth showcasing. I was delightfully surprised that a few shells actually became more interesting when they commanded attention in such small arrangements.


And I was excited to be able to inject some bolder color into the mix. Coral was the perfect choice for this background.


I LOVE this project – not least because I didn’t spend a dime. I’d bought the 11×14 mats years ago and had never found a use for them. The  5×7 mats I cut myself with my handheld mat cutter. The shells were free (of course). And the level of difficulty of the project was low – that is, if you exclude the 13 months I spent struggling to make something that wasn’t terrifying with these shells. Which leads me to the number one reason why I love this project.

It ain’t ugly. And it ain’t kitsch.


Aesthetics aside, the only other threat to success was the adhesive. How to affix shells on mat board?

I thought ahead – testing small shells on scrap with three different adhesives, and leaving them to dry overnight.


I was concerned about the strength of PVA Wood Glue, but knew it would be the easiest and cleanest to use. I suspected that Mosaic Adhesive would work well, seeing as shells were similar to ceramic tiles in texture, but I had very little left in the bottle and would certainly run out. I knew that industrial grade Gorilla Glue would get the job done, but I’d never used it before and had no idea how it behaved. Thank goodness I pre-tested.


Apparently, Gorilla Glue expands by 4 or 5 times as it dries.

Luckily, Mosaic Adhesive and PVA Wood Glue both got the job done too and dried clear, without expanding. And since I had two bottles of PVA, problem solved.


That leaves framing. Like the source of my inspiration, I’m thinking white wood (or driftwood) frames with flat profiles to finish them off.

Once framed, there’s only the small matter of a home for these works. Unfortunately, I haven’t an inch of wall space remaining in my tiny Sydney flat, so I’m hoping that my mother in Virginia Beach(!) of all places, loves this project as much as I do.

Cause she’s about to inherit nine pieces of seashell art.

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4 Responses

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  1. cjmoss said, on June 26, 2013 at 9:01 pm

    You’ve actually done it! kitsch & ugly-free! The one with the striped clam shells (last photo) is my favorite. Seriously, I want it.
    Ok… I have to go dig out my shells now.

    • humanb said, on June 26, 2013 at 9:38 pm

      Thanks! That’s the idea: to inspire you to do the same! Cheers. 🙂

  2. Anonymous said, on January 18, 2015 at 5:23 am

    In Tasmania right now, just collected shells with my daughter at Pirate Bay and now I know what we’ll do with them! Yay and thanks!

    • humanb said, on January 18, 2015 at 8:41 am

      Awesome! I love that you were inspired. I wouldn’t mind pictures of your projects either.

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