Romance is at the heart of a new activity at the the Bailey-Matthews National Shell Museum in Sanibel.
A Sailors' Valentine board has been located in the museum lobby. It's a 19th century interest when sailors returning from sea adventures gifted a wood box of small shells glued in heart or compass patterns. Historic boxes today are worth big dollars to souvenir collectors, and Valentine boxes draw big crowds at a Bailey-Matthews shell fair each year, mostly because of the area's reputation.
The Valentine project at the Bailey-Matthews is the brainchild of Sanibel artist Pamela Boynton, whose work has appeared on a national stamp and who has shellwork at the museum. Bill Jordan of Fort Myers built the box that is about the size of a 500-piece stopsign-shaped puzzle.
Artist Pam Boynton
Museum visitors place shells in numbered slots that will ultimately complete the project. The shells are from Barbados and are part of the museum's admission fee.
"And I think it'll get done very quickly," said Boynton, as museum visitors crowded around the project, shells in hand to fill the slots.
Sailors' Valentines are mostly octagon-shaped boxes of mahogany or cedar. They are glass faced and the first ones were about the size of a nice candy box. The sailors glued pink and blue and white shells inside the boxes, presenting them to a loved one returning from whaling and other long ventures. The boxes originated in Barbados, which for centuries was a last stop for sailing ships heading to America, Boynton said. Barbados also has distinctive shells of small size and vibrant colors on its beaches.
Bailey-Matthews has a display of collectable and modern Valentine boxes. The shell patterning is delicate, intricate and entirely moving, certainly heartfelt.
Boyton said the boxes became a cottage industry in Barbados, cultivating exquisite work that evolved into tourist gewgaws as time progressed. Today, antique Sailors' Valentines are collectibles, valued for their beauty and unusual qualities. Collector interest has sparked a resurgence in the art; shell kits and patterns are now sold at craft shops.
Boynton saw her first Sailors' Valentine at the Bailey-Matthews. She studied the process and history and in 2002 created her first work. Barbados in 2011 featured one of her works titled "Evermore" as a commemorative stamp. The work was created in honor of her sister. Boynton also restores boxes dating to the 1800s.
"The museum," Bailey-Matthews marketing/events manager Katie Ball said, "is grateful to Pam for her varied contributions here, including the creation and design of the Sailors' Valentine, as well as her extensive assistance as a volunteer."
Museum visitor Robert Kochensparger was thrilled to piece shells in the exhibit.
"It's really fun," said the youngster, wearing a sailor's cap and visiting with his family from Atlanta.
The exhibit is on display at the Bailey-Matthews National Museum, 3075 Sanibel-Captiva Road. For details, times, admission, visit shellmuseum.org