From a distance, viewers may think they see ordinary flower bouquets among the scientific and artistic displays at the Sarasota Shell Club 2024 Shell Show.
As they draw closer, they’ll realize what’s before them is, in fact, more seashells.
Assembling shells in the form of carnations, roses and African violets is no small feat, but for members of the Sarasota Shell Club, the treasures found in the sea are a passion they enjoy showcasing, as well as selling, to the community each year alongside other exhibitors from outside the area.
Ron Bopp, the president of the club and coordinator of the shell show, had been collecting shells with his wife, the late Mary Jo Bopp, who also would participate in the show, even before they moved to Florida in 2008.
He enjoys cataloguing the shells and creating displays like the 20-case setup he will be presenting this year. Even with the display currently packed and ready to go, there is still no shortage of shells to be found throughout his home.
“I’m sure that you’ve heard of this shell,” he said, removing a tapering pale and brown-spotted shell from the shelf. “This is a junonia. This is a shell that down in Sanibel, if you find one, and you call the newspaper, they'll come out and take your picture.”
His collections are sourced from locations around the world. He has 150 to 160 different species of cone shells, and he has received numerous awards, including at the two shows he has attended so far this year out of a planned five.
The club's artisans, meanwhile, offer a different way of looking at shells.
Amongst the creations on display will be critters and gnomes, jewelry boxes, Christmas ornaments, wall decor and more.
The process of creating shell art requires patience, as shells may need to be bleached and then dipped in acid and scraped dry, and will have to be sorted by type and then carefully selected to fit the art piece.
There’s also the problem of sand.
Debby Alexander, who coordinates the group of artisans, said she has often taken entire bags of sand back to the beach.
The club is able to supply the shells the artisans use, which is a major help.
Member Guelda Wooldridge has been crafting in various forms since junior high, but the tide turned for her when she came to Sarasota and joined the shell club.
“It just broadened the horizon of what was possible,” she said.
Despite the challenges of shell art, the group is intended for artisans of all skill levels.
“We teach each other different skills on how to make things, because we don’t all come here as great artists; we come here for the camaraderie, a love of shells and all the sea life, and then we help each other come up with ideas,” Alexander said.
Most new members discover the group through the shell show, she explained.
Bopp said the show is especially important today, as fewer younger people are showing an interest in shells, although the show does offer a category for young presenters.
Shell collecting, Bopp said, is a hobby suitable for many people.
“It doesn’t cost very much,” Bopp said. “If you’re not buying, if you’re just collecting, if you’re resourceful enough, you can find the shells.”
The club uses the proceeds from the show to provide scholarship and educational opportunities, including support for trips for middle school students on the Carefree Learner, scholarships for students pursuing marine biology, support for professors who offer trips to other countries and support for shell museums.
Ian Swaby is the Sarasota neighbors writer for the Observer. Ian is a Florida State University graduate of Editing, Writing, and Media and previously worked in the publishing industry in the Cayman Islands.