Anna Chan was used to working with precious materials as a longtime jewelry designer, but over the past couple of years, nothing has become more valuable to her than seashells. Since the middle of 2020, she has since designed and created over 30 incredibly captivating sand and shell sculptures that she calls a “mosaic of lives pieced together to become a rendition of life greater than their own.” Through intricate and thoughtful arrangement, the shells synthesize into striking depictions of wildlife, calling attention to the delicate balance of nature and the life around us that goes unnoticed.
Anna always had a love for beachcombing, whether on vacation in the Gulf Coast or on her local beaches in New York. She collected shells for ten years before finding a way to incorporate them into her art. During the covid lockdowns in June, she took her eleven-year-old daughter (a proficient sheller herself) to Robert Moses Beach on Long Island, where they created their first sand sculpture of a sea turtle together, aiming to bring attention to the species’ endangered status. As a jewelry designer, Anna says she naturally saw the seashells as gems. To her, the sand sculpture looked naked without some bling, so she decorated them heartily on top of the turtle’s shell.
Once the first piece was completed, she decided it would be a great summer project to create twelve different sculptures for a calendar and to have something fond to look back on during the unprecedented times. Eventually, she adapted her process so the sculptures could become permanent wall art, and created DIY art kits for others to share the joy of playing with sand and seashells.
“I have always been drawn to nature and its beauty. If sand is my canvas, then seashells are my inspiration, gemstones, and brushstrokes. To be able to channel what I find at the beach into a new rendition of nature’s pride has truly been a gift. It has kept me grounded and has inspired me to call attention to the precarious existence of endangered species, along with our inaction,” Anna says.
For her process, she first creates the sand sculpture using her hands and water. Once it takes shape, she uses the seashells to create a mosaic. The bas-relief sculpture goes through a hardening process after it is completed so it can live on and display vertically.
The shells Anna gathers and uses are ones often passed over by collectors such as mussels, oyster shells, small and large clamshells, and even broken pieces. Before the pandemic, she enjoyed looking for more exotic shells at places like Tigertail Beach in Marco Island, Florida, where she found olives, pen shells, kitten’s paw, and her favorite: the smooth and delicate, almost translucent rose petal tellins. Whelks, moon snails, and orange scallops are the coveted finds in her area of Long Island; she finds most of her moon snail shells at her local Robert Moses State Park. Anna also recommends Orient Beach State Park for an abundance of colorful scallops and unbroken whelks (if you’re lucky).
Learn more about Anna and her art at annachan-art.com.
Learn more about seashells
Learn more about identifying shells, the history of seashell collecting, great shelling beaches, and the lives of the animals who make the shells we find on the beach. Articles ›
No live shelling: Be sure shells are empty and sand dollars, sea stars, and sea urchins are no longer alive before you bring them home.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine July/August 2022 issue.