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Children paint with seashells at Harford County's Anita C. Leight Estuary Center

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The pounding could be heard on the bottom level of the Anita C. Leight Estuary Center as children used mortars and pestles to break down seashells and grind them into powder to use as paints.

Five local girls, plus their parents and grandparents, took part in the “Seashell Paint” session Saturday afternoon, one of the many community events put on by the Estuary Center, a county-operated facility along the bank of Otter Point Creek in Abingdon.

“We’re going to pay a little tribute today to our Native American friends,” staff naturalist Jill Kane told the participants, noting how native tribes in the region would use ground-up seashells to make paint.

Participants were initially supposed to go down to the beach along the creek — where clam shells can be found — pick out shells and bring them back to the Estuary Center building. Kane said the beach was too icy to bring members of the public down there, so the group used containers of shells from the Carolinas that she had on hand.

The girls pounded away with their pestles — causing the floor to shake at one point — turning the small shells in their bowls into tiny pieces. The powders were then mixed with water to create a paste, and the children painted patterns with it on black paper.

“Everyone here is a beautiful artist, very good job,” Kane told the children.

She said the shell paint, which she described as a “chalk-like pigment,” has a faint purple or pink color, depending on the material in the shells.

“It’s not like a bright pink, but it’s a pink,” Frankie Brandt told her 5-year-old granddaughter, Scarlett Gazia, of Bel Air, as the child painted thick lines.

Kane also gave the participants multi-colored acrylic paints, with sharp blues, purples, pinks, oranges, greens and other colors, to mix with their shell paint.

The children made creations on paper, plus they painted whole shells.

Ria Dhlk, 6, of Aberdeen, partnered with her father, Rut Dhlk, to grind up shells and then paint the word “love” on her paper and hearts with shell pieces and standard paints. Ria also painted shells.

She said her favorite parts of the activity were painting the shells and “making new colors.” Ria said she paints at home and school.

Saturday was the Dhlks’ first visit to the Estuary Center, but Rut Dhlk said “it seems like they have a lot of interesting activities for kids and adults, so we would definitely like to explore that in the future.”

“It’s nice to do as a team, some physical activity and creativity for the kids,” he said of the Seashell Paint event.

The Anita C. Leight Estuary Center, a “research and education facility,” is operated through the Harford County Parks & Recreation Department, with support from organizations such as Chesapeake Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve-Maryland, the federal NOAA, the Izaak Walton League of America and the Otter Point Creek Alliance, according to Kane and the Estuary Center website.

Otter Point Creek is a tributary of the Bush River, which then flows into the Chesapeake Bay.

Kane said the center hosts programs for the public, from preschool-age children to adults, every weekend throughout the year, even during the winter. She said the Seashell Paint was a first-time program, inspired by her college history minor which included studies of Native American history. The center hosts a number of similar arts-and-crafts programs such as making bug hotels, shelters where insects can reproduce.

“We love mixing arts and crafts and nature,” Kane said.

Kathleen and Mark Filiaggi, of Forest Hill, encouraged their granddaughters, Nora Filiaggi, 5, and Stella Filiaggi, 7, both of Delta, Pa., as they ground shells and painted.

Saturday was the first time Kathleen Filiaggi had visited the Estuary Center — she said she was “enthralled” by another room in the center where visitors can see creatures such as turtles.

She said she was impressed by the concept of Seashell Paint and said her family has an “abundance of shells” at their beach residence.

“I’m thinking, ‘Wow what an idea!’ ” Filiaggi said.

Frankie Brandt, who splits her time between residences in Arizona and Abingdon and is working to spend as much time as possible with her grandchildren in Harford County, praised Kane for facilitating a program for young children.

“We’ll go young,” Kane replied. “We just want to get everybody involved.”

Brandt’s granddaughter, Scarlett, held up her completed painting, a mix of shell paint with an acrylic paint rainbow and whole painted seashells.

“I like this . . . because it looks like a beach,” she said.

Kane told the group about upcoming events at the Estuary Center, such as the Saturday, March 10 Salamander Hunt. The event runs from 1 to 2:30 p.m., and admission is $3 per person.

“It’s going to be a lot of fun, and they’re very important to our ecosystem,” she told the group.

Kane explained later that salamanders are an “indicator species,” as they are sensitive to pollution and the health of an ecosystem can be gauged by the numbers of the amphibians.

For more information about events, visit the Estuary Center website, http://www.otterpointcreek.org, call 410-612-1688 or visit the center’s pages on Facebook and Instagram.

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