If there is a First Sunday festival on the first block of West Street in downtown Annapolis, Eric H. Roberge will be there.
People come to a full halt when they spy his curbside table laden with his artwork: oyster shells decorated with his designs. As if they were freshly-shucked bivalves, people scoop them up.
His oyster artwork is displayed throughout the year at the Fin Art galley at 214 West Street.
Roberge’s interest started in Paris, where he was born in 1948. His father was in the U.S. Army and his mother was a French native. As a child, he wandered around the world-famous Parisian art museums. When Roberge moved to Maryland in 1957, his mother was instrumental in the establishment of the Key School at its original Eastport location.
“I’ve been drawing and painting all my life,” he said. “I wanted to do something different to distinguish myself, to be a little different from the other artists.”
A self-taught artist, he’d been a house painter for many years and, in his art, transitioned to non-traditional materials.
Ten years ago, he picked up an oyster shell and started doodling on the inside of the smooth part of the shell. Now, his shells feature portraits, mythological creatures, drawings and found objects. Some he turns into sculptures. Others feature maps of the Chesapeake Bay, quotes from authors or playwrights or stylized snowflakes.
The shells vary from the size of a computer mouse up to a large saucer. He obtains the shells from Cantler’s Riverside Inn on the Broadneck Peninsula, which is a short distance from the old farmhouse he rents in the nearby St. Margaret’s community. Photographer Jay Fleming has brought him large beauties, friends drop off bags of shells after a party, and Roberge collects about 30 dozen a year from his own feasts.
He is fastidious about preparing each shell. Roberge scrapes the inside with a knife, rinses it, scrubs it and rinses again, then lays the shell outside for the sun to bleach. No chemicals are involved. The art is produced using micron gel pens with fine tips and paint. Once he has finished creating an artwork, it is protected with a polyurethane spray, creating a high gloss shellac finish.
During a recent visit with The Capital, Roberge picked up a pen and a half-moon image he calls “Au Claire de la Lune.”
“I’ll put an eye here, a cheekbone, and start putting in craters,” he said. “I incorporate the natural texture of the shell and sometimes add in a little bird or fish, and a star.”
Each piece of artwork is a memorial to the creature which once inhabited the shell.
“They’re survivors who made it this far,” Roberge said, “and we’ve eaten them. But they have another life as art.”
He’s not the only local artist dabbling in bivalve art.
Artist Kim Hovell wanted an oyster painting for herself. She pulled out her painting supplies, placed a fresh canvas on an easel, and, glancing at the shell placed nearby, set to work.
When she needed money shortly after, she sold it. That wasn’t the end of her oyster saga. People kept asking for her abstract Impressionistic oyster artworks on canvas, and she continues to depict the beautiful bivalves with her deft brushwork.
“For a theme, my luck hasn’t run out,” she said.
The art she creates, including landscapes of Nantucket, have a soothing, calming effect on viewers. Her serene palette includes pale, beach tones and soft blues, golds and greens.
Hovell is married and has a 1-year old daughter named Charlie. Home is a work-in-progress. In her studio, encompassing most of the lower level, the sheet rock has been stripped from the walls, baring the studs and wood framing, and giving the space an arty groove look. The new walls go up soon.
“Shells are pretty and beautiful,” Hovell said. “They have a lot of colors, unique iridescent colors.”
In addition to paintings of oyster shells, she has also ventured into depicting barnacles and jellyfish.
Her art sells for $100 to a few thousand dollars. Her originals are displayed at the Natalie Silitch Crafts and Antiques Shop, 62 Maryland Avenue. Prints and some originals are also sold at HERE, A Pop-Up Shop , Candles Off Main, Whimsicality, Severna Park’s Side Street Framers, and at shops up and down the East Coast. The Maine Cottage catalogs also showcase her works.