The Shell Tower

My collection of wood fragments, stones, mosses and bugs pale in visual comparison to my shells.  They are objet trouve of a special sort.  I am not a shell scholar; I am a shell finder. My first trip to Lake Michigan, my first trip to Atlantic ocean, a visit to Cape Hatteras-I have some shells that I collected.  I have 8 of these particular shells-they found me. Meaning, I wrote a check.  I had to look up the name-Cypraea aurantium.  I do not know what waters call it a native, but there is certainly nothing like it in the Great Lakes.  I know nothing of its habit, or habitat.  But I do know they are incredibly beautiful objects.  This photograph does not begin to do the shape, the surface, the color, or the texture any justice. It might be the most fabulous outfit for a living organism that I have ever seen.  I have had them in a bowl in my drafting studio for years.  To hold them in my hand, turn them over, and imagine the life they once protected-an experience of the miracle that is nature.   

I have a big love for the miracle that is nature.  I have a room-a repurposed back porch- devoted to my objet trouve.  My beaver skulls-to look at those teeth, I have no problem imagining them felling trees for their dams.  Bugs, butterflies and rocks.  Old letters.  Sculptures, prints and plates of birds, fish, and flowers.  I call this room the reliquary-a place for various relics.  A friend gave me her Mom’s collection of Susan B Anthony dollars-a sign of the importance of our friendship.  Painted plaster saints.  Quirky sculptures made in grade school, a hydrangea ball from Espace Buffon in Paris.  It is a collection of objects of interest, beauty, or meaning.  Souvenirs, if you will.   

The shell grottoes in Italy and England-how I envy those gardeners their shelled fountains and follies. Would I ever get there to see them in person?  My climate would not permit any such expression of my own outdoors.  This room was looking like a home for the shells, but it was already stuffed with this and that. I went up. I had Don Taylor take the ceiling out, and build me a six foot square tower some 14 feet off the floor-in exterior grade plywood.  Each side of the tower had a half round window-I wanted the tower to be flooded with light.  My shell collection was no doubt inadequate for the job.  I went shopping.   

How does one design a shelled tower?  I didn’t.  I decided arbitrarily that all of the shells would be peach, orange, and white-and any combination thereof.  I bought lots of everything, as I had no idea how I would proceed once I was face to face with the project.  I loved this approach.  I cannot treat a landscape project like this.  I was completely at ease that it would just evolve.  My shopping for shells taught me much about rarity.  Rare shells, like my cypraea, are priced by the shell.  Abundant shells are priced by the hundreds, or in the case of small shells, by the gallon.  This Irish Flat pictured above-the bounty of the sea.  They are large, and inexpensive.  I bought lots. 

The ceiling scared me.  I rented scaffolding; I needed an 8 foot ladder just to get to the scaffolding surface.  The thought of climbing another tall ladder based on the scaffolding, and gluing shells in a pattern up over head-whoa.  Who knows where I got the idea to glass the ceiling.  But one material and one material only up there seemed like a good idea.  Beach glass-that adjunct to shelling-perfect.  Perfect, but not that easy.  Where does one get lots of tumbled recycled bottle glass?  I did not have enough time left in my life to collect it.  I found it; an objet trouve available in quantity.  25 pound boxes, sent from California.  The cost of the glass-next to nothing.  The shipping-astonishing.  I was even more scared now-which felt good.  I spent the better part of a half day all winter long, the music blasting, on a ladder.  750 pounds of beach glass went on that ceiling to start.  I glued multiple layers of glass.  I wanted the tower to look rounded-not flat-sided.   I had help with the adhesive part.  Ceramic tile mastic-I liberally buttered each piece of glass with it, and pressed up.  It took no time to stick, but a week to cure. I would glue as much as I could stand to before my fear of the height would overtake me.  Not one piece of glass has ever come loose. 

I planned ahead a little bit-electricity which would power a light fixture was in place before I started with the ceiling.  Once the glass was on the ceiling-now what?  I took my cue from the shape of the windows.  I cannot explain the design any other way.  I made one move, on all fours sides, and regrouped.  These pictures do not show the put up and rip down days. It was my winter; I had time to make mistakes or changes, and start over.    

Out the tower window to the west-my chimney.  Around the window, I glued an embarrassment of riches in egg cowries. Then I shelled the wood molding that came with the window.  Then a window molding fashioned of a double row of Irish flats.  Each shell I sorted by size.  No one would notice a gap from the floor, but I was on the scaffolding ladder, face to face with the chimney. The design had everything to do with the view from the floor-I am sure I went up and down that pair of ladders plenty.  The tower itself was built amazingly true and square, but shells of a given species vary considerably in shape and size.  A lot of tinkering went on.     

None of the shells I used were rare.  The smallest of the shells-the white calpurnus that I glued up by the hundreds-are barely an inch long. Each and every one of the other species of shells has a distinctive shape, pattern, and color I like. Better yet, I have my own folly.  

This project took a little over 2 months of my winter.  The good part- I cannot remember one thing about the weather, the snow, the cold or the gray that year.