Piece of Work: Lois Kessler

Lois Kessler fell in love with shells at a young age. Growing up just a block from the ocean in Connecticut, she would stroll the sandy stretch of beach searching and collecting at the water’s edge. So it should come as little surprise that years later, once retired, she would become enamored with sailors’ valentines, an art form dedicated to using shells and other gifts from the sea to create intricate shadowbox designs.

The creation of sailors’ valentines dates back to the mid-1800s. Sailors who would come into port purchased them as gifts for loved ones back home. “The main misconception everybody has, and I had it too, was that the sailors made these like they did scrimshaw, on the ship,” explains Kessler. “But they were made in Barbados.”

Kessler makes hers in Guilford, Connecticut, where she lives with her husband. After discovering them on a trip to Nantucket, she enrolled in a how-to course in her hometown. The first one she made was for her first-born grandchild thirteen years ago.

Lois Kessler, The Mary and Verna, 10 inch diameter.

These days, inspiration comes not only from the past but the present – like a recent trip she made to the Harbor Craft Shop in Menemsha. There, she noticed a hand-painted shell owner and friend Roberta Morgan had made of her husband Jimmy’s fishing boat, the Mary and Verna.

Back in Connecticut with shell in hand, Kessler set to work laying out an intricate pattern to complement the centerpiece. “I try to set the center design or the outer ring of the box first,” she says. Shells are laid in without glue to make sure everything looks right. Once satisfied, Kessler carefully glues each shell into place. “It’s quite a process,” she admits.

“It gives me great fun telling people what they are. It’s a continuing of an art form from years ago. I think a lot of us that make them don’t say that we make sailors’ valentines,
but we recreate them from the way they were made.”

Kessler’s work can be seen at AquaNaut in Vineyard Haven.