Elizabeth Wyman Crews has seen Jesus at the beach — the perfect oyster shell to represent the baby Messiah in one of her oyster shell nativities, that is. For the past six or eight years, Elizabeth, a Columbia native who has lived here all of her life, has been making beautiful art out of seashells. Her earlier pieces were mirrors, their frames covered with colorful shells of all kinds, arranged symmetrically around the glass. Nowadays, though, she is famous for her creative and inspired work with oyster shells.
At Christmas time, she makes oyster shell nativity scenes with one oyster standing on end as Joseph, one as Mary, and another lying in a little oyster manger as the baby Jesus. Three Wise Men and their staffs are also included. The nativities are finished with burlap, Spanish moss and topped with a star of David made from a tiny starfish. Elizabeth is constantly on the lookout for the perfect oyster shell to add to one of her projects.
“I don’t get much exercise walking on the beach because I’m always stopping and stooping!” she laughs. “I’ll be walking along and say, ‘Ah, there’s the perfect Jesus!’” Elizabeth’s trained eye sees faces, human forms and subtle nuances of colors where the rest of us see only a barrier between us and a bite of seafood.
In addition to making creches, Elizabeth uses shells to cover just about everything. She adorns urns, planters and treasure boxes, small votives and wine stoppers, and huge pieces of furniture. Some of her most intricate and extravagant pieces are her chandeliers, complete with dangling ropes of dove shells hanging from shell-encrusted arms.
“I’ll just cover anything!” she says enthusiastically. “My favorite go-to wedding gift is an oyster-covered lamp, complete with an oyster finial.” Elizabeth’s latest endeavor is making salt and pepper shakers, a project that has her searching for the whitest oyster shells in the perfect shapes to cover simple glass saltshakers, and the perfect shades of black to cover the peppers.
Outgoing and vivacious, Elizabeth nonetheless does most of her work alone in her home studio. “This is how I relax,” she admits. She stands at a large table covered with the tools of her trade, projects in various stages of creation, boxes of sorted shells, sand, hammers, tweezers, files and a power drill. Her favorite tool is a small pair of rippers to break the shells in precise places so that they fit her purpose.
“I am saving up for a power saw,” she remarks with a smile, “so I can make my own bases for mirrors, because most mirrors don’t have enough surface on their frames.” Elizabeth works on her art several hours each day, listening to NPR and wearing an apron and a pair of flip-flops. “I wish I lived at the beach,” she says. “But here I’m surrounded by beach, in my own little seashore world!” Many of her designs are quite labor intensive. She estimates, for example, that some of the more elaborate mirrors take weeks to complete and are expensive to make. “Sometimes I wonder whether I spend more when I make something, but I would much rather make things than buy them,” asserts Elizabeth. “I see things in the stores or in a magazine, and I say, ‘I can make that!’”
The first and most time-consuming step in making Elizabeth’s art is the collection and sorting process. Although she sometimes just picks up an interesting or beautiful shell, she usually walks the beach with a purpose in mind, combing the sand for the perfect shapes and shades. “I just love looking at shells!” she exclaims. “So interesting, so much geometry!”
Many of Elizabeth’s oyster shells come to her from friends’ oyster roasts, however, and she even has a Columbia restaurant saving its cast-off shells for her. She must thoroughly clean these, of course, before the sorting process can begin. “Sometimes I find a bit of saltine cracker or lemon left in them!” Elizabeth says. But by the time they are incorporated into her art, the shells are completely cleaned and left in the sun to dry. If she wants a purer white color, she soaks them in Clorox before drying them. Next comes the sorting process. Stacked in Elizabeth’s garage and along the walls of her home studio are milk crates and boxes full of sorted oyster shells. Each box contains a certain shape or color, depending on the project for which it is destined. She has boxes of Marys, Josephs, brides, grooms, salts, peppers, flats and rounds.
“What takes me all the time in the world is cleaning and sorting,” says Elizabeth. But the most challenging work is the creative process, during which she chooses a particular shell to fit each piece. Before attaching the shells, she paints each piece, whether a wooden box, cement urn or metal candle stick, in a neutral color so that the base doesn’t show through the shell covering. She then painstakingly places each shell at just the perfect angle, applying a special glue — different glues for different purposes — to the surface of the shell and finishes with a blow dryer. Finally, she covers up the seams with a sand and glue concoction she developed herself after much trial and error. Although she has experimented with varnishing the finished product, she and most of her customers prefer the natural organic look. The last step is to sign her name or add her initials to every piece of original art.
The oyster pieces have become her signature item and are available for sale in shops in Columbia, Charleston and Georgetown. “The beautiful natural oyster color looks great with linen and burlap,” observes Elizabeth. “It works with tan, white, black, gray … almost anything!”
It was almost by chance that Elizabeth discovered her passion for adorning items with shells. While she has always been creative, and has other artistic hobbies such as sewing and gardening, she admits she doesn’t draw or paint. It was with a broken mirror and some boxes of whelks that her unique art was discovered. “I decided to glue them on, and it looked good!” After two mirrors, though, she ran out of shells, but the seed was planted in her mind.
In the beginning, Elizabeth was pattern oriented, working with symmetry in color and shape. Then she expanded to covering mirrors, treasure boxes and sculptures in a more eclectic manner, using huge varieties of appealing and colorful shells, some with interesting and descriptive names such as “sputnik” and “king crowns.” She also works with cowrie, chula, abalone, lambis and sand dollars, to name a few. Somewhere along the way it was suggested she use oysters.
“Oyster shells are actually very durable,” Elizabeth explains, “and the surfaces are better than other shells because of their flatter shape.” The supply is better too. Elizabeth is quick to note that oysters are not endangered and that many of her oyster shells are recycled or are post-consumer byproducts of the food industry. The oyster shells that do come straight from nature originate from various places. The big round flat ones come from the Gulf of Mexico, while the long ones, good for making human forms, come from the May River in Bluffton. The clusters that Elizabeth often uses for votives also come from South Carolina. She sometimes buys her larger non-oyster shells from dealers in Texas or Florida, but all of her shells are natural, except any coral she uses, which is faux, so that no coral beds are harmed. Finding items to cover with shells is half of the fun for Elizabeth. She loves to scour thrift shops and antique stores for old boxes, lamps, bookends and sconces. Craft and hobby stores are also great sources for her. She covers sculptures of goddesses and mermaids, and will even do custom pieces for clients, decorating an old or outdated object with shells and making a new, unique piece of art.
“Shell art is a very old tradition,” says Elizabeth. Indeed, seashells were used to adorn jewelry as long ago as the Stone Age, and seashell collecting and decorative shell work were popular hobbies of the aristocracy in the 17th century. Victorian women used shells to create intricate compositions that resembled flowers, hearts and geometric patterns. So, Elizabeth carries on the tradition, adding her own personal flair, and producing gorgeous original objects of art. Lately, though, Elizabeth has been traveling to the mountains.
Pointing out some charming prototypes of crosses, picture frames and Christmas trees, made not out of seashells, but of a rich, mahogany-colored woody substance, she says with a grin, “I’ve got a new obsession: pinecones!” Who knows, maybe Elizabeth will soon see Jesus in the woods.
Find Elizabeth’s designs at Cricket Newman Designs located at 2710-D Gervais St. or by contacting Elizabeth directly at firstname.lastname@example.org.