Island artist puts new spin on old sailors’ valentines
Local artisan Susan Alexander finds inspiration for her creative projects from all things Galveston. The Houston-born and raised interior designer and expert shell crafter summered on the island as a teenager and bought the August J. Henck cottage with husband Robert Clarke in 2010. Their East End house in the historic district of Galveston was built in 1897 and serves as a perfect backdrop for her remarkable works of shell art called sailors’ valentines.
Historically offered as a sentimental gift from a sailor to his beloved upon returning from a long voyage at sea, the traditional sailors’ valentine is an eight-sided box filled with hundreds of exotic shells laid out in patterns forming intricate flowers in miniature. But other variations such as the roundel — a round or oval diorama of shells featuring an original painting or scrimshaw under convex glass — also are popular.
In his book “Sailors’ Valentines,” John Fondas concludes that the primary source for sailors’ valentines was the New Curiosity Shop in McGregor Street, Bridgetown, Barbados, and a popular shop where sailors would purchase souvenirs. Such valentines were made from about 1830 to 1890, according to some historians.
Alexander likes to put a modern spin on the painstaking art form, using morsels from what she calls “everyday life.” For example, she can customize a valentine so that it focuses around a special piece of jewelry that has sentimental value, such as a pin your mother favored. She once created a piece to include a prized message in a bottle, written by her daughter Kirby. The message was: “We only part to meet again.” The bottle might be miniature, but the message is big.
Alexander, who calls Galveston’s beaches a “flower garden of beautiful shells,” likes to use as many local shells as possible. The most easily found on our shores are pink barnacles, leopard crabs and horseshoe crabs. Coquinas, which are types of clams that resembles a butterfly when opened, are most abundant and come in a plethora of colors, including white, cream, gold, peach, pink and lavender.
“The vast variety of colors and sizes is what makes Galveston so unique and fun to shell,” Alexander said.
If you still don’t find the exact color you’re seeking, Alexander suggests dying the shells, preferably in Kool-Aid. She also suggests washing shells in hot, soapy water and warns against dying them in a white, porcelain sink. Lastly, a gentle scrub with a soft toothbrush may be necessary.
“You must be careful and treat them gently,” she said. “If you think about it, the shell is actually just a skeleton and using them is a form of recycling.”
Finished pieces get a rubdown with baby oil from a Q-tip for moisture and gloss. If you’re hesitant about creating an original, patterns are available online. Antique and specialty shells can be found on eBay. Alexander’s original valentines take about three months from conception to final creation and always include her trademark bumble bee.
Whether you make your own, find a gem in a local antique maritime shop or commission one from an artist such as Alexander, sailors’ valentines make unique gifts on the special holiday of the heart.
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