Sailor’s Valentine

September 21, 2011

Florida is a haven for shell collecting enthusiasts, but what do they do with all those shells they collect? Display them somehow? One of the most beautiful and unique ways of displaying shells, that I’ve ever seen, is by way of an art form developed in the early 19th century. Sailor’s Valentines.  I came across several of these at the Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum while in Sanibel Island.  

A  few quick notes on this exquisite, detailed art form:

  • They are not what their name implies. Sailors did not make them, and they were not given as gifts on Valentines Day.
  • They were popular in the early 19th century during the height of the whale-oil industry. Sailors would purchase them for their loved ones while in their last port of call before returning home.
  • The shell art form was developed by the women of Barbados and other Caribbean islands.
  • The frames for the shell art are octagonal boxes.
  • Several of the valentines contained romantic phrases such as “Forget me not.”
  • According to several researchers,the primary source for these keepsakes was a shop in Bridgetown, Barbados called the New Curiosity Shop, owned by two English brothers.  (Unfortunately the shop closed around 1880.)

This antique art form is now experiencing renewed interest. Kits and books on the subject can be found all around the state.  The museum on Sanibel Island even provides a display making it look easy.

They are quite costly if you try to buy one from the early days, many going for as much as $16,000. Another option is to make one for yourself.  At Sailors Valentine you can purchase a full Starter’s Kit, complete with frame, sanddollars and shells. That will only set you back about $134.oo.  Otherwise, you can start collecting shells now and design your own shell mosaic.

I can see myself hanging one of these on my wall. But do I have the patience to first collect the large amount and variety of shells, then set out the pattern and carefully set each shell?  Stay tuned.

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Dance, War and Art

May 25, 2010

The Artist’s Job Is To Explore
To Announce New Visions
And To Open New Doors
 

–Etched in stone, Entry to Small Gallery, Maitland Art Center– 

On a casual drive in the Orlando area this past weekend I came across a fascinating building tucked away in a quiet, upscale neighborhood near water.  The sign on the building declared it to be the Maitland Art Center.  I parked and wandered inside. 

Of Dance and War
As I weaved my way among the artists’ studios a man emerged from one of them. His name was Steve Piscitelli (Pi for short) and he invited me in to his Figure Sculpting class. There were only three students and a model named Claire posing on the small stage area. One of the students continued to sculpt a figure of the model out of wax. Another sat quietly sketching the model.  The third student busily worked on a head/bust of one of her grandchildren.  Apparently this grandmother was immortalizing each of her grandchildren in this way.

Pi is best known for his sculptures of ballet dancers.  Interestingly though, Pi is also known for his war themed sculptures.  On his website, which he admits needs a little updating, he is quoted as saying the following in relation to his dual themes of dance and war: 

I dealt with war imagery by making statues of what was bothering me. In order to counterbalance that depressing, miserable subject, I took the most beautiful form of human endeavor, which is dance, and began making dancers just simply as a balance. 

As a little background, Pi served in Vietnam when he was 19 years old.  One of the figures on his workshop shelf, he tells me, is that of the youngest soldier to die in Vietnam, a 15-year-old.  He was there to witness it. 

Pi graciously walked me around the center, showing me the foundry and his work area.  He then took me into the only other class taking place – Jewelry Fabrication.  There were only two students this day and one of the women showed me a beautiful ring she had made for her boyfriend. 

Artist's Studio

 

Andre Smith 

The Maitland Art Center was formally an artists’ compound designed and built by artist and architect Andre Smith in 1937.  Across the street from the compound Smith also built an open-air chapel and courtyard. These still remain today. 

Outdoor Chapel

Courtyard

My favorite spot of the Center was the outdoor chapel, surrounded by oak trees draped in Spanish moss.  At its entrance you will find this, etched into the stone wall: 

I STOOD AT THE GATE OF LIFE AND SAID
GIVE ME A LIGHT THAT I MAY GO SAFELY
INTO THE UNKNOWN AND A VOICE REPLIED
GO OUT INTO THE DARKNESS AND PUT
YOUR HAND INTO THE HAND OF GOD
THAT WILL BE TO YOU BETTER THAN A
LIGHT AND SAFER THAN A KNOWN WAY
 

The Gallery
 
Since I was already there, I decided to pay the $3.00 to view the art gallery.  The gallery was small but just enough for the day.  The exhibit, entitled “The Matrix: Andre Smith’s Prints and Beyond,” not only contains exquisite etchings by Andre Smith, but art by several other artists as well.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Women Looking at Flowers (Andre Smith)

 

Reflections 1980 (Maury Hurt)

Poster for Picasso Designs 1966-69 (Pablo Picasso)

News Boys 1934 (Minna Citron)

The Center’s unique features are the accessibility to artists and the offering of various art classes including pottery, stained glass, painting and digital photography. There are also classes for children, as well as workshops for teens.  The Center has recently merged with the Maitland Historical Society and Museums and changes are bound to be in store.  How this will affect Pi and his class of figure sculpting remains unclear at the moment.  I will have to check back later in the year, or possibly attend a workshop myself one of these days.