Shell-shocked

Shell work by Blott Kerr Wilson

I have long been fascinated by the art of shell work, which I first experienced in a grotto within an Italian Renaissance garden as a young girl. Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting Suzannah Fleming who worked alongside Blott Kerr-Wilson on the conservation and restoration of the Shell House at Cilwendeg, thanks to the fundraising of The Temple Trust of which Suzannah is Chairman. Suzannah has a gallery ‘Sunflower & Poppy’ in North London where she lives and works. The visit was prompted by her current display in which she and Blott present their latest work in a small but perfectly formed exhibition.

On arriving at the gallery I stood outside for a moment, my eye drawn to the window display consisting of a series delightful small crates filled with mussel shells, the same as those used by wholesalers and fish merchants – a little element of playfulness I found enjoyable. Moving to the front door the anticipation built as I rang the doorbell. For me there is a very special moment before I step over the threshold of a workshop or space of a person of exceptional creative skill. I know that I am about to be immersed in their world, one in which their personality is inextricably entwined with their creative self. There is such a pleasure in asking an open question of those I meet, inviting them to talk freely about what they love most, their skills and pleasure in their work, how they arrived at it and where they want to go with it.

At these moment of anticipation I am always taken back to a moment when I was about 14, and I found myself riveted to the spot on a visit to the National Gallery. The subject of my attention was an artist who was in the process of copying a Titian. I was utterly captivated watching their dexterous hand movements, miraculously bringing life to blank canvas. I laugh to myself sometimes at those moments we are all asked to think of something ‘relaxing’. Most of us might say a white sandy beach, unable to think of anything else under pressure. My thoughts are always drawn to the moments I have observed the creation of something of beauty by the human hand. No doubt all such moments in my life have been the seeds at the root of my founding Guilded.

So it was with the promise of being in my perfect state that I entered Suzannah’s world….

Suzannah’s gallery has a delicious intimacy. It is in fact part of her own house, and this warmth this imbues is felt the moment you are invited in. The walls are painted in a deep brown, designed to allow the shellwork being displayed to stand out. The scale and colour of the room also gives a sense of stepping into a private space not disimilar to the salon privee, the smallest and most intimate room you may have experienced at the end of a progression through the state rooms of a great country house. These rooms were designed for intimacy, and were full of the private and most coveted possessions of the owner. So it is that this room, in what is in fact part of Suzannah’s own home, gives a sense that you are invited to experience that which is most important to her.

The exhibition itself consists of a series of pieces by Suzannah and Blott. A series of obelisks by Suzannah displayed on a table engage a traditional style of shellwork combined with her very detailed and precise style. I can’t help viewing the work of those I represent in terms my personal response to it. It is perhaps sufficient to say that I would delight in living with a pair of her shell encrusted obelisks given the chance.

The dominant feature of the exhibition are wall hung framed works by Blott Kerr-Wilson which are contemporary in feel, each consisting of hundreds of one type of shell, whereas traditional shellwork always combines a variety. To give an example one work is entirely made of mussel shells, set in a rhythmical pattern reminiscent of the flow of a wave over the seabed.

The impression as one stands surrounded by Blott’s work is of a person utterly in tune with her medium. The works are dynamic, yet soothing since there is a rhythm to the setting of the shells in each piece. The shells in ‘Moira’ – illustrated above – are set with their reflective inner surface exposed. As a result they almost appear to move as you do, which is due to the shifting light reflection. As you experience each piece on display you cannot help but begin to wonder whether the shells really would move if you ran your hand over them, so natural is the sense that a wave or wind has just shifted them a moment before. Suffice to say that these new works from Blott are engaging, dynamic and utterly mesmerizing, so I urge you to experience them for yourself and visit the exhibition before the end of the year. If you do, just make a mental note that it is worth telephoning ahead:

Sunflower & Poppy, 7 Southampton Road, London, NW5 4JS. T: 020 7284 1598

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