I am a sucker for shellwork: Bring on the encrusted mantles, walls, mirrors, furniture, and oh, the Sailor’s Valentine! Maybe it’s the fifteen years I’ve spent living seaside in Charleston, including now on an island just beyond the peninsula where I get to admire the beauty of lettered olive shells and moon snails on beach walks. Maybe it’s because the art form is so old that the Romans loved it, too, and that classicism appeals to me. Maybe it’s because I recently endured the live-action Little Mermaid with my five-year-old. Or perhaps it’s all three.
Still, in the wrong hands, shell-encrusted anything can go gaudy—fast. Not so, however, when the Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina, artist Dawn Nakamura turns her talents toward the sea. Nakamura, who is known locally and beyond for her arresting dioramas of butterflies in flight (see Garden & Gun’s story on her work here), is also quite the whiz with items washed in on the waves, as evidenced by her stunning handmade shell mirrors.
When she begins a piece, “It always starts with the room the mirror is being used in,” she explains, “and the colors surrounding the space that I can pull from.” Otherwise, “I tend to gravitate toward shells with bold colors or unusual markings.”
She is conscientious of where her shells come from; all of the pieces, from purple pectin to clams, are sustainably sourced from India, the Philippines, Africa, and stateside, in cases where they are often byproducts of the food industry and would otherwise be discarded. Some of the mirrors even include wings from Nakamura’s butterfly work (which you can see in the detail below if you look very closely).
“I find working with shells to be magical,” she says. “I’ve always loved the mystery of the ocean and what lies beneath.” To commission one of these compelling pieces, clients typically reach Nakamura through her Instagram page, and each shell mirror takes up to four weeks of handwork to complete.
If you’re after something smaller and just as lovely, not to worry. Nakamura also creates a range of pieces including shell shadow boxes and more.