Shell, Yeah!

Steve and I are on Ocracoke Island this week, one of the most beautiful beaches in the Outer Banks. It’s been a bit chilly, with stiff shore winds, so we’ve mostly been visiting the beach in short stints, clothed in long pants and jackets, walking rather than parking our chairs and hanging out for the day. I hope we’ll get some warmer temps soon, so we can lounge and linger.

The weather hasn’t really slowed my efforts at shell collecting. Despite the reservoirs of shells I have at home, gathered on previous beach trips, I am always on the hunt for the next treasure. When we were last here in September, it seemed like there were fewer whole shells to be found than in previous years, and some once common finds, like olives, were absent. I’d hoped that was a factor of fall ocean currents, but I’ve yet to see even a fragment of an olive on this trip. And once again, broken shells are abundant, intact finds fewer and farther between.

Two pretty moon snails

It’s tempting to see it as some kind of metaphor–my body, too, has felt a bit more broken with each visit. But I hope my ego isn’t so encompassing that I can only see the world as a reflection of my own state of being! The whole world has been muddling along this year, not just me. If there’s a metaphorical resonance in the limited numbers of good shell finds, perhaps it’s in the ways all of our experiential spheres have shrunk in the course of the pandemic.

It is interesting to think about how my approach to shelling has shifted over the years. When I was young, I was less discerning; I was also more impressed by ostentatious beauty. As I’ve grown older, I’ve gained a broader knowledge base. I know what I’m looking for; I appreciate novelty, but I also take pleasure in seeing and naming the familiar. I have greater appreciation for small beauties and subtle, intricate patterns, even as my eyes aren’t as sharp as they once were.

Baby’s ears and buttercup lucines are etched with delicate markings

My mother recently made me a beautiful journal that declares “My birthstone is a seashell.” Sometimes it certainly feels that way. I don’t think I’ll ever tire of wandering the shoreline in search of treasure. There’s always beauty to be found, if we only look for it.

beauty in the broken: the backstory

Carilion Clinic, through which I am receiving my medical care, partnered this year with the National Arts Program to sponsor a Patient Art Show, an initiative of the Dr. Robert L.A. Keeley Healing Arts Program. Any patient receiving care through a Carilion provider was eligible to submit art work, which is currently on display in the lobby of Carilion Roanoke Memorial Hospital, through December 15th. All the works are available for viewing in a photo gallery on Facebook, where you can vote for the People’s Choice Award (shameless plug: if you’d like to vote for my piece, click here.)

I submitted a mixed media triptych collage (acrylic on canvas, seashells, vellum, pen and ink) entitled “beauty in the broken.” I described my inspiration for this piece in a brief artist’s statement:

Shortly after I was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2016, my husband and I visited Folly Beach. An avid sheller, I have long been drawn to the whorls of the moon snail, a shell made a symbol of women’s need for creative space by writer Anne Morrow Lindbergh. To keep the numbers of shells I brought home in check over the years, I usually collected only whole specimens. On this beach trip, facing chemotherapy and a bilateral mastectomy, suddenly the moon snail fragments reminded me of the curves and arcs of breasts. Even in their brokenness, especially in their variety, each was still beautiful. This mixed media collage attempts to honor the beauty in the broken.

I rather like the company the piece is keeping at the exhibit: a cheerful beach and a calming river.

There is a narrative incorporated into the collage itself. It cannot–intentionally–be read in its entirely on the artwork, reflecting the idea of fragmentation and imperfection. The narrative was excerpted and adapted from an essay I had written last year about collecting seashells:

When I first started shelling, I would often pick up blemished shells, the conch with a hole in the back, the slipper shell with a chipped, jagged edge. Sometimes the brilliant coloring or the graceful whorl exposed in a fractured shell looked too beautiful, even in its brokenness, to leave behind. Turned just the right way, the shell’s flaws were all but invisible. When I grew tired of the fragments, after a while, I vowed to collect only perfect specimens: bright color, shiny finish, completely whole with no marks or any blemishes. I quickly discovered the problem of the perfect: such shells were elusive. There were few such specimens to find.

A shell is a vestige of a living being. It is product of and home to a life; it has tumbled in the surf, cracked against other shells, been baked by a hot sun on some days, warmed by gentle rays on others. The flawless are found only in shell shops, polished and perfected, sometimes even under glass, the evidence of their complex lives buffed out and shellacked over. The imperfect shell, whole but marked by the world it has engaged and survived, is the real find. Maybe you can only see the real find after you understand what it is you’re truly looking for. Maybe the beauty in the broken only emerges once we recognize that same beauty in ourselves.


Two quotations wrap the edges of the two small blue panels. The first, from Anne Morrow Lindbergh’s essay on the moon snail, reads “Only when one is connected to one’s own core is one connected to others.” The second is from E. M. Forster: “We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to have the life that is waiting for us.” I’ve found both of those ideas fundamental to healing and happiness.

Creating this piece was very meaningful to me. And while the timing of this post is purely coincidental, I know that many people are struggling this week with the sense that much in our world is broken, fragmented, divided. May we find our way to recognizing and owning our flaws, valuing our differences, and treating one another with respect.

One more shameless plug: if you’d like to vote for my piece for the People’s Choice Award, please “Like” it in the Patient Show Art Gallery: beauty in the broken. Please do visit the gallery, and feel free to share the link—there are many beautiful works in the exhibit, and many are available for purchase. Part of the proceeds benefit the Keeley Healing Arts Program. Thank you!