Camille and I first heard about Ella Mae from a local resident of Great Harbour Cay in The Berry Islands. They were admiring a piece that Camille was working on made of beer bottle caps. They said it reminded them of something Ella Mae would make out of seashells. He started to describe her work, then stopped and said, “You just need to see it.” So we did. He put us in touch with her and we met her at her home.
Ella Mae lives at the water’s edge of Bullocks Harbour with her family. She grew up on Long Island, and although she has lived in Bullocks Harbour now for many years, most of her family and many friends are on Long Island. In fact, most of the shells that she uses for her work come from Long Island. She recently traveled “home” to assist family devastated by hurricane Joaquin. She came home with her suitcases full of shells, a new crop dredged up from the storm.
Camille and I were awestruck on our first visit. Not only did Ella have several pieces on display, she has also decorated the door frames and window frames in her home with seashells. She had several seashell floral arrangements ready to send out for Mother’s Day orders. They looked like real flowers, however, a closer look confirmed the petals were shells. In fact, everything in the arrangement came from the sea. The leaves and stems were from sponges and coral.
Ella Mae creates pieces by request or by inspiration. The ship was commissioned by someone employed by one of the cruise lines that stops at nearby Stirrup Cay. She also makes small pieces for sale to tourist at the straw market on Stirrup Cay. Sometimes she will start a piece without a clear idea for the end result and let it evolve. The Koala bear was created in this manner. Using common materials in an unusual way, Ella sees potential that others miss.
I asked Ella about her source of seashells. I was curious because I didn’t see the volume or variety of shells that she would need here in The Berry Islands. She said that most of the shells she uses come from Long Island where there are more of them. Still, she sources from several different places in The Bahamas in order to be able to use the variety she does. None of the shells were collected alive. For instance, the Queen Conch shells had been discarded after the meat was harvested. The small shells are collected by sifting through beach sand. Ella recruits family and friends to help with the time consuming and laborious process of combing the beaches and mining the sand.
Ella Mae isn’t the first Caribbean to create striking artwork using seashells. Early in the 19th century, Sailor’s Valentines made of seashells began making their way out of Barbados. These pieces framed by octagonal compass boxes and sometimes customized for a loved one left behind in Europe. Later in the 19th century, L.D. Powels wrote in The Land of The Pink Pearl about women in the Out Islands of The Bahamas who approached him to buy their Sailor’s Valentines for his return to England. Even though they were originally created for sailors to take back to Europe for their loved ones, by the end of the century, travelers were buying them merely as works of art. The Shell Museum in Sanibel, Florida, has a wonderful collection of Sailor’s Valentines on display.
As common as it was, few artisans in The Bahamas work with seashells nowadays. Ella Mae was recognized by the Ministry of Tourism and presented The Cacique Award of 2015. The entire community of Great Harbour Cay is proud to have a local artist recognized by the whole of The Bahamas. Camille and I, as well as her neighbors, appreciate the inspiration she gives us for creating stunning artwork from the very material we tread on at the beach.