Sailor’s Valentines on View this Summer at the Cahoon Museum of American Art

Sailor’s Valentines on View this Summer at the Cahoon Museum of American Art

The Cahoon Museum of American Art announces the opening of its summer blockbuster exhibition: Exquisite Shells: The Art of Sailors Valentines. Curated by Museum Director Sarah Johnson, the exhibition includes of over 50 artworks from museum and private collections, tracing the history of the art form from the Victorian era through the extraordinary work of contemporary artists. The Museum will host artist talks, director tours, and workshops in conjunction with the exhibition which remains on view through September 1.

Artworks on view include examples of valentines created in Barbados in the 1840s; a valentine obtained in Barbados by Falmouth’s Captain Thomas H. Lawrence, accompanied by his ship’s log, on loan from the Falmouth Historical Society; Four examples of Victorian shellwork that demonstrates the era’s interest in exotic objects and women’s parlor art on loan from a private collection; several examples of works by 20th Century folk artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon in collaboration with local shell artist Bernie Woodman; and works by artists from Cape Cod and around the country.

Several contemporary artists whose work is on view, Pam Boden, Margot Goodwin, Sandy Moran, Gerda Reed and Gregg Roberts have connections to the Cape. In addition, works by Helen Beck of New York, Sandi Blanda of New Jersey, Grace Madeira from Pennsylvania, and Judy Dinnick from Canada are included in the exhibition. Japanese artist Hatsue Iimuro has sent two works for display which demonstrate her artistic assimilation of the traditional structures of the medium, with interpretations and materials unique to her culture. The exhibition also features a room of ‘all white’ valentines, a unique extension of the more typically colorful compositions into dynamic works made entirely of white shells.

As a complement to the exhibition, three works by Boston-based miniature shell artist Peter Gable will be on display including his Mermaid’s Dollhouse, miniature shell covered boxes, and miniature shell bouquets. Inspired by nineteenth century Victorian shell floral arrangements under glass domes, Mr. Gable is one of the country’s few highly skilled, and highly collectible, miniaturists working today. The Mermaid’s Dollhouse is made entirely of shells, took over 300 hours to construct, is only nine inches high, and includes a mermaid’s bathroom, bedroom and living area, with the tiniest of details. It is displayed inside a rotating glass dome.
The exhibition includes a printed take-away checklist, and additional information on the history of the art form is available on the Museum’s website.

Sailors Valentines have a long and interesting history, and contrary to popular belief, the 19th Century valentines were not made by sailors, but instead the objects originated from a cottage industry of makers in Barbados. There, brothers George Gordan and Benjamin Hinds Belgrave, who owned Belgrave’s Curiosity Shop in Bridgetown, catered to the market of sailors trolling the streets to shop for souvenirs on the last stop before home. The Belgrades employed island women who used native shells to produce the valentines for sale, roughly during the time period between 1830 and 1880.

These shellwork mosaics came to be known as sailors valentines, solely because they were purchased by sailors to bring home as sentimental keepsakes dedicated to loved ones.

Housed in octagonal wooden boxes, traditional sailors valentines feature designs such as hearts, rosettes, stars, inverted scallop patterns, souvenir mottos such as A Present from Barbados, and sentimental mottos including Truly Thine, Think of Me, and Forget Me Not. As these valentines grew in popularity, they increased in complexity. Pairs of the eight-sided frames were hinged together so that when closed, they formed a box that could be safely packed and carried.

A local connection to the art form emerged between 1977 and 1982 when Cotuit artist Ralph Cahoon and shell artist Bernard Woodman created dozens of delicate and charming sailors valentines, combining Mr. Woodman’s beautiful shellwork with Mr. Cahoon’s whimsical, nautical painted fantasies. In one piece on display, a sailor and a mermaid dance by the sea, encircled by floral rosettes. Along with examples of their sailors valentines collaboration, the exhibition includes a display case with materials from Mr. Woodman’s studio which illuminates how he created the valentines, shows examples of the shells he used, and demonstrates his cataloging system.

Contemporary artists continue to make sailors valentines, and the folk craft that started in the West Indies in the nineteenth century has evolved into an art form characterized by original design and exceptional quality of workmanship. There has been a resurgence of many types of shellwork art and with the rise of show culture, including the annual Sanibel Shell Show among others, contemporary sailors valentines have become widely sought after by collectors and have reached a new level of international appreciation.

Exquisite Shells: The Art of Sailors Valentines highlights a selection of the top practitioners who are creating highly innovative and dynamic compositions. Each of the artists has a distinct vision and style and brings a new, unique perspective to this historic craft, while keeping within the parameters of the traditional form- a wooden octagon box, use of shells as material, and symmetrical arrangements.

Contemporary sailors valentines often emphasize the vibrancy of the pure, natural colors of shells, many feature three-dimensionality in their form, and some include special feature paintings, scrimshaw centerpieces, and elaborate focal points. Where traditional valentines generally range from six to twenty inches in diameter, a number of artists working today create pieces ranging from miniatures to very large pieces. It can take a skilled artist weeks to several months to create one piece, depending on size and complexity.

This one-of-a-kind exhibition reflects the Cahoon Museum’s commitment to show a wide variety of art, from educational exhibitions about unique and less well known art forms to ground-breaking contemporary art. As a counter-point to the sailors valentines exhibition, this summer the Museum is exhibiting a large scale environmental art installation, The Blue Trees, by New York City artist Konstantin Dimopoulos. Mr. Dimopoulos will color the large trees on the Museum grounds a vibrant shade of blue using environmentally-safe colorant to call attention to global warming. His exhibition will be on view throughout 2019. For more information about the season’s exhibitions and associated programs, visit

As the region’s most innovative art museum, the Cahoon Museum of American Art presents historical and contemporary art exhibitions in the landmark Crocker House in Cotuit, MA. The Museum welcomes visitors of all ages to learn about art and art history, to enjoy fun, family friendly events, to delight in creative programming, and to embrace the enduring story of the important folk artists Ralph and Martha Cahoon. The Museum is committed to its mission to celebrate American art in ways that expand knowledge, enrich the spirit, and engage the heart.
The Museum is located at 4676 Falmouth Road (Route 28), Cotuit, MA 0263. It is open from March 15 – December 22, Tuesday-Saturday from 10AM – 4PM, Sundays from 1PM – 4PM.

Author: Mashpee Chamber of Commerce

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