One of the things I’ve been doing recently is painting on shells. The shells in question have generally turned up as unwanted things other people had around their houses. I wouldn’t source large shells by taking them directly from a beach because you can’t easily tell if they are inhabited (even if the first occupant is dead, other things may have moved in). I’m also wary of supporting shell selling businesses for all the same reasons – empty shells are part of a beach ecosystem. However, people have been taking shells for a long time, better to do something with them than send them off to landfill.
One of the things I’ve found paining shells is that it’s a very different experience from painting on a manufactured or already crafted surface. There’s a lot of variety in a shell, in terms of shape, texture and colour. I could have just put my intention onto them and used the shells as a hard surface to paint on, but I didn’t.
I’ve taken each shell as an individual, and tried to work with, enhance or respond to what the shell already is. In effect, I’ve been treating the now deceased shell maker as my artistic collaborator in this project – respecting their choices, and trying to see where I might add to that. Of course there’s a power imbalance, we can’t talk about it, one of us is dead… but nonetheless I’ve found it a really powerful experience.
I’m an animist, so taking a physical thing and treating it in line with the belief that is has acted deliberately and has intentions and preferences I can work with, is not a difficult line of thought for me.