The process behind creating a valentine is nearly as intricate as the end product itself. “I always have a dream in the middle of the night,” O’Donnell says. “I wake up with an idea and go running downstairs to my studio to start drawing.” After she finishes sketching her vision, the research begins. O’Donnell wants to know everything about each planned aspect of the valentine. Every flower she plans to make from shells merits extensive study, in addition to the reading she does on the shells themselves. “I’m kind of a shell geek,” she says. “I just love reading about where they’re from. I’m so enthusiastic about each and every one.” O’Donnell keeps several well-thumbed encyclopedias of conchology—the study of mollusk shells—handy while she works.
Once the research is done, the delicate task of putting the valentine together begins. First, O’Donnell uses a compass to sketch her design within the frame. Next she carefully inserts paper dividers into the box, a difficult process dating back to the original Barbadian sailor’s valentines. Finally, using dental tools and fine tweezers, she fixes the individual shells to the backing of the box with cement. For an added touch, O’Donnell will often include pearls and vintage Swarovski crystals in her pieces, evidence of her insistence on using only the best materials. She says that from start to finish, a valentine typically takes her six weeks. Though she notes that many artists can finish a creation much more quickly, O’Donnell prefers to take her time. “I just want to do the best job I can and give it passion and joy and put myself in it,” she says.