Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Elephant No. 156: Seashells

I was in a thrift store earlier today, and came across a small bag of white seashells, along with a jar of coral and other marine detritus, so I thought I'd try making some kind of elephant with my little haul. 

Seashells have been used by humans since prehistoric times in everything from currency and jewellery, to musical instruments and rituals, to art and architecture. Although seashells are the most commonly used type of shell, freshwater shells and even the shells of land snails have also found their way into human activity.

As currency, seashells were used for millennia on every continent except Antarctica. Cowrie shells—particularly Cypraea moneta, also known as the "money cowrie"—were especially prized in many cultures. It is said that the Dutch East India Company amassed its immense fortune largely by trading cowrie shell money for exotic goods such as spices, gemstones and wild animals. 

Similarly, dentalium or "tusk" shells were important to indigenous peoples of North America's Pacific Northwest, and North American wampum belts were made with the shell of the quahog clam. 

Wampum belt, ca. 1775–1780, made with northern quahog and knobbed whelk shells.
Collection of the McCord Museum, Montreal, Canada
Photo: © McCord Museum
Source: http://www.mccord-museum.qc.ca/en/collection/artifacts/M1904

Many of the seashells used as currency also adorned both jewellery and traditional and ceremonial clothing. Ritual objects were often ornamented with cowrie and dentalium shells, and many peoples have made necklaces from virtually any small or medium shell that could be drilled or strung. In addition, shells were often sliced, shaved or broken to make beads, buttons and sequins. The mother-of-pearl and abalone buttons found on high-end clothing today hearken back to ancient use of the opalescent interiors of tropical shells.

Kikuyu woman wearing cowrie necklaces, Kenya, 2006.
Photo: Angela Sevin
Source: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Kikuyu_woman_traditional_dress.jpg

Seashells have also been used as musical instruments. The best-known of these are the giant conch shells that have been used as wind instruments for millennia, particularly among Asian and Pacific peoples. Seashells have also been used as religious objects—including charms, divination objects and symbols—and as tools ranging from scrapers and spoons, to bowls and even bathtubs.

Japanese horagai or conch horn, nineteenth century.
Source: http://polarbearstale.blogspot.com/2011/06/japanese-conchs.html

To me of course, the most interesting uses of shells are those that are purely decorative. In addition to being depicted in paintings, sculpture and architectural adornment, shells themselves have been used to frame mirrors, to adorn boxes, to make souvenirs and other small objects, and as keepsakes such as the charming "sailor's valentines". Most astonishingly, seashells were once used to line the walls of full-sized grottoes in an activity popular among gentlewomen. This was taken to an even greater extreme in numerous eighteenth- and nineteenth-century houses and follies, where almost every available surface has been decorated to a greater or lesser extent with seashells.

Interior of Cilwendeg Shell House Hermitage in West Wales, U.K. following restoration
by the Temple Trust. The walls and ceiling are entirely decorated in shells, and the floors
are inset with the knucklebones of oxen and sheep.
Source: http://www.thetempletrust.org.uk/

For today's elephant, in order to keep things simple, I decided that I would use only the small white shells that I got today. I've never made anything with shells before, so I wasn't sure exactly what to do with them. I toyed with the idea of simply gluing them in a pattern to the top of a box, then thought I'd make something three-dimensional, then considered something in low relief but not glued to a support. Then I decided I'd just let the shells themselves inspire me. Dangerous idea, that.

This was the pile of shells that I had at my disposal. I think these are something called White Clam Rose shells, but I'm no shell expert.

I knew that wiring these particular shells together would be beyond me, so I pulled out my small glue gun, and some clear sticks of glue.

Before glueing anything, I played with the shells a bit, seeing how they fit together. They have a very specific shape, and don't actually fit together all that well.

I started by overlapping and glueing a few of the smaller shells together as a trunk.

Next I added a shell for the side of the head.

Before I could attach larger shells for ears, I had to glue on a smaller shell as a "stub" to which the ear could be attached. If I hadn't done this, the ear would have been attached very tenuously, and would likely have fallen off.

I tested this first ear stub with a large ear-shaped shell, but it still wasn't enough, so I attached a second ear stub.

I attached a first ear, but mistakenly held it while I glued more shells on the head. Since the glue under the ear was still warm, it folded back into the head. At first I thought this was a disaster, and tried unsuccessfully to unglue the ear. Then I decided to simply add another large ear shell on top of the first one. This actually worked out well, because glueing on a second ear made for a nicer shape. The two layers also gave the ear more dimension.

To finish this off, I added a small shell with a knot that looked a bit like an eye, and a couple more shells to complete the head. The back is a bit chaotic, but it has a weird cubist look that I like almost as much as the front.

I was surprised at how well this turned out. It looks a bit like it's wearing plate armour, which appeals to me, and it has a nice solid feel. Best of all, it took about half an hour.

In the past, I haven't always liked shell art. However, now that I see the abstract artistic possibilities, I might change my mind.

Elephant Lore of the Day
Despite the fact that elephants swim in saltwater, and despite the fact that they need salt and other minerals in their diet, too much salt can be toxic to elephants. 

Saline poisoning can be a particular issue in Africa, where drinking water is sometimes scarce. In one case of fatal saline poisoning on that continent, the elephant had access to water, but it had a high salt content. Elsewhere in Africa, a number of elephants died due to high salt and mineral consumption, coupled with a lack of viable watering holes. And in perhaps one of the saddest cases of all, a baby elephant in captivity died from saline poisoning, due to a manufacturing defect in its food.

If the symptoms—which include sleepiness, lameness in one of the front feet, cold ears and cold limbs—are caught early enough, emergency rehydration can sometimes save the elephants, even in the wild. When water becomes scarce, conservation centres will often create artificial watering holes in order to help save wildlife. 

Salt toxicity is not limited to elephants. Whenever a high salt content is coupled with a lack of hydration, saline poisoning is a possibility in every species from birds to humans.

African elephants at watering hole.
Source: http://piperbasenji.blogspot.com/2011/07/african-elephants.html

Elephant's World (Thailand)

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