The Mermaid's Box

seashell artist studio

Machel Spence is a beachcomber, biologist, photographer, and artist from Seattle, Washington. She loves visiting the beaches along the Pacific Ocean and Puget Sound, especially in the summer.

“I have had an appreciation for seashells my entire life,” she says. “I grew up in South Florida and took every chance I could to go to the beach and collect. Since then, I have amassed an enormous collection of shells from my grandmother and my own travels.” Her travels have taken her from Florida to Washington and even to the seashell-filled coasts of South America.

sea shell artist machel spence

Machel collected a huge variety of shells during her childhood on the beaches of Florida after storms. “When I was little, I would put my collected seashells in saltwater once a week because I thought they needed to feel closer to their original home.” 

paper nautilus calico crab chambered nautilus

She now collects limpets, topsnails, and moon snails on her beaches in the Pacific Northwest. Still, she dreams of shelling on her favorite beaches in Sanibel and finding a rare paper nautilus or a calico crab molt. Meanwhile, her collection includes some urchins that are very special to her.

Nine years ago, Machel made a box for a friend out of the shells she found on the beach. Her friend encouraged her to try to sell her boxes. She now sells her pieces, which are complex and stunningly crafted, featuring intricate design work and a strong artistic vision. 

sea shell frames boxes

As an elementary and middle school marine biology teacher, Machel loves seashells not only for their artistic beauty but also the value they present to kids curious about marine life and marine conservation. “My love for seashells is incorporated into my daily life not just because of the art that I create, but because I want kids to know how important every animal in the marine environments is.”

Machel is a zoologist, and specifically studied the Nautilus pomilius, commonly known as the chambered nautilus or pearly nautilus. Because of her appreciation for all living things, Machel uses only vintage seashells or empty shells found by friends who live in tropical areas. “It’s so important not to take more than you need from any area,” she adds.

shadow boxes and frames made with sea shells

Machel describes her artistic process plainly: “I sit at my desk, stare at a box or whatever I might be working on, and wait for an idea for a design to pop into my head.” Machel says that everything inspires her but she is particularly moved by the beauty of nature.

When she’s not working on her art, Machel photographs mushroom species, teaches biology, and spends time with her daughter, India, and her partner, Andre. If you visit, you just might find them in Lincoln Park, Magnolia Park, or Camp Long, enjoying nature.

framed seashells

This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine November/December 2019 issue

Learn more about seashells

nature and history of seashells and collecting

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.

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