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Shelling: getting from fun to fanatical

By Staff | Mar 13, 2009

Over the last three days thousands of visitors from all corners of the world converged on Sanibel’s Community House to attend the largest and longest running Shell Fair and Show in North America, sponsored by the Sanibel-Captiva Shell Club. Treasures of the sea were like magnets, drawing shell enthusiasts at all points on the continuum of engagement to this Mecca of conchology.

Some of the thousands of attendees were there out of idle curiosity, determined to discover what all of the fuss was about. Others have been casually collecting shells for years but now just filling their mesh beach collection bags or simply adding a new species to a wicker basket adorning their living room coffee table is no longer enough. They want to know the common and scientific name for their specimens. Another group of attendees have a deeper sense of curiosity about what mollusks eat, where they live, what method of locomotion they employ, how they reproduce, or what creatures they may fall prey to.

But what about the individuals that dotted the periphery of the exhibit hall, toting a notebook, moving from exhibit to exhibit, taking copious notes? Or, the Cecil B. DeMille’s of the show floor, busy photographing every exhibit in a particular division. What was that all about? They are the show’s future. Their actions signify a desire to move to the next level, by either entering the show next year for the first time or entering the show again based on the lessons learned through recording and studying the work of the 2009 show entries. Then of course, there were the 2009 show winners standing beside the fruit of their labor, either answering questions posed by show attendees or being photographed by doting family and friends.

What is it that happens to change the casual sheller to the shelling fanatic? Anne Joffe, immediate past president of the board of trustees of The Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum remembers the exact moment things changed for her. “I grew up in New England and started collecting shells as a child, in fact I can’t remember a time in my life when I didn’t walk along the shore collecting shells but shortly after coming to Sanibel I had a life changing experience. I remember it vividly. I was sitting in shallow water sifting through shells. I found a small shark’s eye, picked it up and placed in on my leg. The animal came out and looked up at me. I felt like I made a friend and from that moment on mollusks became my lifelong friends,” reported Joffe.

It was the intrigue of the live animal that catapulted Joyce Matthys from a casual sheller to a shell fanatic. “I was a radiographer and because of that background and training, when I looked at the animals that made the shells I realized that they weren’t that different from humans, they had a lot of the same body parts. That was the hook for me,” said Matthys. That might explain why she has produced two videos chronicling the life of the shell makers.

Karine Mirzakhanyak was born and raised in Armenia. As a child, summer vacations were spent by the sea in Russia, which is where her love affair with shells began. When coming to the United States thirteen years ago, she took up residence in California and began collecting shells on Laguna Beach.

Last year Karine happened to hear a segment on the Martha Stewart show about shell shows, reporting that the Sanibel show was the best in the country. During that program David Rhyme’s work with sailor’s valentines was featured. “I was inspired by David’s designs and the program gave me an idea,” shared Karine. As an engineer, she had developed a trained eye for detail and excellent drawing skills. After arriving in the United States, Karine began creating sugar flowers for wedding cakes. She decided that her drawing skills and experience building sugar flowers might be the perfect foundation for creating sailor’s valentine designs so she began experimenting.

“That television program changed my life,” Karine said. “I know this is going to sound silly, but I read my horoscope. It indicated that people born in March have a creative flair. It all seemed to be a perfect fit. The shell show judges couldn’t have agreed more, as she was chosen as one of this year’s award recipients. “I can hardly wait to go back to California and start teaching others about sailor’s valentines and the techniques used to create them. It will be a challenge because people on the west coast have never heard about this art form,” reported Karine.

“One of the biggest challenges this year was getting my entry here in one piece. At the last minute, when boarding the plane, I was told that my art work was too large for a carry-on. I was given only one option, wrapping cardboard around the corners of the sailor’s valentine case and sending it on board with the luggage. I was so frightened that it would be broken,” she said.

Anna Fastenau has spent her whole life on Sanibel, all 10 years of it. It hasn’t taken her as long as many others to move from shelling as a casual hobby to a fanatic obsession. Anna credits a devoted home-schooling Mom and two mentors, Audrey Hostetler and Anne Joffe, with fostering her early interest and artistic talent.

Last year she took a shell flower craft class at the Shell Museum and attended summer camp there as well. She became fascinated with the animals that build the shells, in fact so much so that she has become a junior docent at the Museum. Every Monday afternoon she lives out her passion by conducting a live tank demonstration. “It is the beauty of shells that fascinates me and I’m absolutely amazed at what you can create with shells,” said Anna. Her Mom, Jeanne reports, “Anna loves mollusks and she loves to share what she knows about them with others. Her experience with the Shell Museum has been life changing. Watching her grow in not just her knowledge of mollusks but in her communication skills and comfort with public speaking has been amazing.” Observing Anna on Monday afternoon’s, it’s hard to imagine that less than a year ago she was described as shy and introverted.

Whether as a casual hobby or passionate obsession, “what a difference a shell makes.”