Dead Shell Walking

Old art can be overrated. Do we appreciate Botticelli’s painting of the Birth of Venus because it’s really old — five centuries and counting — or because of its composition and grace? OK, that’s a ridiculous question. We all know people flock to the painting because Venus is standing on that seashell completely naked.
A better example? Michaelangelo’s colossal statue of David. Wait, he’s naked, too.
Still, it doesn’t always take centuries to realize that a work of art is great, and sometimes an artist doesn’t even have to put a naked person in it, (though, clearly, naked people help). Moreover, sometimes a great work of art is consciously designed not to last. Consider, for example, the elegant ice sculpture. Or the mighty snowman. Or the humble sandcastle.
Or, better yet, consider Lincoln painter Reed Prescott’s giant mosaic of a seashell made largely of … seashells. In the interest of journalistic full disclosure, I should tell you that Reed is a friend of mine.
But he is also a talented artist and a man with a vision … or, perhaps, a man with way too much time on his hands. Or, maybe, a man who simply was taken by his family to one too many antique stores and salt water taffy stands on his vacation last month, and decided that he would rather stay at the beach than look at yet another antique writing desk or chamber pot. (OK, I probably don’t need to modify chamber pot with “antique.” At least I hope I don’t.) Either way, last month while at the beach on Cape Cod, Reed created one of those extraordinary works of art that have a lifespan of hours. He spent the better part of one entire day creating a giant seashell at the edge of the ocean comprised largely of slipper shells, ark shells, scallop shells and dead crab parts.
Yes, dead crab parts. It’s sort of like when you were seven years old and built a teepee out of the stuff you didn’t eat at Red Lobster, except in this case your mother doesn’t tell you not to play with your food.
Additional color was provided by great drapes of seaweed and sea lettuce.
How giant was the mosaic? It was roughly 20 square feet when Reed was through, a piece of art that might have grown even larger if he had had more time. It was colorful, swirling and meticulous — and, because Reed had built it by design at the edge of the surf at low tide, absolutely doomed. We’re talking Dead Shell Walking. When the tide returned, it would disappear almost as quickly as a sandcastle.
Fortunately, Reed photographed it. And while an image can’t possibly do the mosaic justice, I was nonetheless impressed when I saw the picture of the shell made of shells. It wasn’t just lovely to look at: Its sheer ephemerality made it poignant in a way that art that’s created with a legacy in mind is not. The beauty of the shell resided in large measure in its sheer transience, its fleeting existence on that beach.
Next year Reed once again will spend a week on Cape Cod. His 2007 mosaic will be long gone, each piece scattered by the tides to some other part of the great scythe-shaped peninsula. Will he create another one? I hope so. And I hope it’s even bigger and more ambitious than this year’s version. One suggestion? Follow Botticelli’s lead and add a naked goddess to the shell. Then it will be both fleeting and timeless, and will officially earn the moniker of “great art.”
(This column originally appeared in the Burlington Free Press on July 8.)

Chris Bohjalian

Chris Bohjalian is the author of nineteen books, including his forthcoming novel, The Sleepwalker. His other novels include the New York Times bestsellers Midwives, The Sandcastle Girls, The Guest Room, and The Double Bind.

One thought on “Dead Shell Walking

  1. Mermaid says:

    I wish I could have seen this seashell artwork of great wonder (I love children’s art).You should post it on your website.- this is a great topic, btw. (Adults should also learn to be free to create such artworks like kids are). One time I saw a sand sculpture at Maryland’s Ocean City (I think that’s the name). It was a very large sculture of Jesus in the sand. He looked a bit scary under the lights (it was nighttime), but all the chiaroscuro was to die for (I’m serious). Very cool!

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