On any given morning, you’ll likely find Audrey O’Donnell working away in her studio, nestled in the lower level of her East Falmouth home. Tools in hand, she patiently sorts her materials in preparation for the day’s project. Though these may sound like the everyday tasks of any ordinary artist, O’Donnell’s creations are anything but ordinary. With steady hands and whimsical vision, she takes shells from the sea and makes art.
O’Donnell, a retired hairdresser and lifelong art lover, took up seashell artistry several years ago, after she spotted a sailor’s valentine on a friend’s mantle. The valentines, which originated in Barbados in the 1800s, are octagonal, glass-fronted boxes with complex designs inside made entirely of seashells. Wealthy whaling captains typically bought them home for loved ones after a long journey at sea. “I’m sure I’d seen them before, but this was the first time it really caught my eye,” says O’Donnell, “And I said, ‘That’s fabulous. I have to make that.’”
After taking a series of classes with talented teachers, O’Donnell was hooked. She embarked on her first solo valentine, finishing it in one week and proudly presenting it to a fellow artist. Though it wasn’t met with glowing praise, O’Donnell was undeterred. She continued on, garnering more and more accolades along her way to eventually becoming an internationally recognized sailor’s valentine artist. Her creations have won awards at the famously competitive Sanibel Shell Fair & Show on Sanibel Island, Florida. But O’Donnell is not one to rest on her laurels. “Now every time I do another one, I try to think of how I can step it up,” she says.