LONG BEACH ISLAND – Not all who comb the sandy beaches from Barnegat Light to Holgate are in search of the same treasure. While some arm themselves with metal detectors, others bank on low tide to wash ashore a novel kind of natural canvas.
Seashells by design are wondrous remnants of the ocean waters, once inhabited by mollusks such as scallops, clams and mussels. However, even the plainest unbroken shell proves inspirational as a keepsake masterpiece for anyone with a bit of imagination.
Robyn Barrod first started coming to Long Beach Island 45 years ago and regularly visits her mother in Beach Haven West throughout the year. One of Barrod’s fondest memories centered on collecting shells as she sunk her toes along the shoreline.
“I decided to start a Facebook page because I was missing the beach,” said Barrod. “The initial theme revolved around asking people where they were finding shells as they walked along the beach. I also asked everyone to post pictures of their finds.”
“Shelling on LBI” premiered on social media in May of 2016 and provided a great deal of information for those interested in finding shells. Barrod even went so far as to name the most frequently found types of shells on the 18-mile island. Others exchanged tidbits about the best times and places to hunt for them.
What started as a small private group now includes nearly 6,000 members with a changed focus on artistry and a fun “shell game” twist.
“Painting the shells was never even a thought when we first began,” shared Barrod. “However, it’s now taken on a life of its own – with many people loving it.”
Barrod believes that a woman named Therisa Mendez was the first to come up with the concept. Mendez once worked as a manicurist and enjoyed delighting her clients by adding clever nail art designs. After she had children, Mendez stayed home with them and put her craftiness on the backburner.
The transition from painting fingernails to painting shells started back in 2017. Mendez said she came up with the idea after she noticed other people were adding creative touches to rocks.
“In the beginning, they (her shell designs) were just okay,” Mendez said. “I started hiding them (the painted shells) and my then teenage daughter suggested I make an Instagram handle.”
To her disappointment, no one acknowledged they’d found the shells Mendez hid in various spots throughout Long Beach Island. She tried not to make a big deal about the lack of feedback even though she knew someone had come across her designs.
“Shortly before and during the pandemic, I began painting even more shells because I was home,” shared Mendez. “I also found the Shelling on LBI page, and announced I was hiding them.”
The project became somewhat of a family affair. Mendez and her husband go on the hunt for seashells together. Their favorite spot is a section in Loveladies, which they always visit at low tide. Mendez washes the shells, and her 19-year-old son drills a hole through them.
“This way, people don’t just have a painted shell,” Mendez explained. “They also have an ornament.”
Mendez could not believe what happened as a result of the increased social media exposure. People literally started to go crazy in search of her hidden shells. One woman even messaged in the middle of the night and said she just had to have one of the works of art created by Mendez.
During the pandemic, Mendez painted and hid approximately 500 shells, embellishing them with beach scenes, Disney characters, animals and more. When Mendez posts pictures of the shells she’s hidden, she also provides hints for those looking for a special treasure of their own.
In the meantime, Mendez’s shell ornaments are also available for sale at Mistletoe, a gift shop in Beach Haven. Some love her work so much that they’ve commissioned Mendez to create a special shell memory.
Mendez admits she finds special joy in learning the shells she’s chosen to hide have made someone’s day and seemingly wound up in the right hands. She recalled the time her husband became a bit perplexed as she kept pushing him to drive further to find the perfect spot to hide one shell in particular.
The couple ultimately settled on hiding the shell by a bench up by one of the sand dunes.
“I had painted a shell of a lady sitting on the beach,” shared Mendez. “I wrote a quote on it that said something about “let your vibe attract your tribe.”
A day or two later, a girl posted that she and her family came across the shell when they were all sitting on the beach. Sadly, their mother had recently passed away and they were gathered together, sharing memories of her.
“They said they didn’t see the shell at first and were shocked when they looked down,” Mendez said. “The picture of the lady I painted looked like their mother – and the quote matched her personality. It gave them all chills, and some were even crying.”
Others who found Mendez’s creations felt moved by striking coincidences. A young girl who found a shell embellished in support of Ukraine just happened to be on the way to play the Ukrainian National Anthem on her cello. A mother who found a shell Mendez painted of two children said the rendering remarkably resembled her son and daughter.
“I just feel like God must have had his hand in some of the way these things happened,” summed up Mendez.
Barrod said she herself doesn’t paint shells, but instead learned to decoupage them. Last December, Barrod made her first decorative attempts and added an ornamental shell to a memory tree erected in Holgate around the holidays.
“It was a cardinal for my father (who died in 2015,) shared Barrod. “Everyone can put a shell on the tree or even on the ground around it because the tree gets filled fast. It’s a memory tree for people who have lost a loved one.”
Christmas in July inspired a number of shell artists, including Tracy Gifford Sprague of Barnegat, well-known as a local photographer. Sprague says she takes pictures to make people feel good and happy despite all the craziness in the world.
As Sprague noticed a lot more people ornamenting shells and hiding them, she decided to contribute by painting some. She added sea glass to the batch she hid to give it a different touch.
“We just make a little tag that says “surprise,” Sprague noted. “We tell people they can either keep or re-hide their find and ask them to post on Facebook if they’ve found a shell.”
A couple of people not only paint the shells for fun – but also to raise funds for a local non-profit organization. Both Michele MacIntyre Capri and Judy Keane said they’ve sold their handcrafts and donated the proceeds to Compassion Café, which provides meaningful employment for young people and adults with disabilities.
Capri said she was out on short term disability herself last year and used her time at home to come up with 150 shells on behalf of the group whose mission was important to her. She filled a table with her work and accepted donations in lieu of payment. Those who picked up shells were instructed to hide them if they didn’t want them for themselves. And – also requested to patronize the Compassion Café.
Keane, 81, gives special meaning to the old tongue twister “She Sells Seashells by the Seashore.” The spirited senior puts a $4 price tag on her creations and invites people to her home to purchase them. Like Capri, Keane turns over all of her earnings to the Compassion Café.
“When I first saw the decoupage shells about three years ago, I knew it was something I could do,” shared Keane. “I do this in Florida too, when I’m down there in the winter.”
Some of Keane’s shells are on display at the Root Green Shoppe, a general store in Beach Haven. A jar set up for people who take the shells says that all donations will go to the Compassion Café.
While Keane’s not running around the entire island hiding her shells, she did put one on the doorsteps of her immediate neighbors. She chuckled that some folks couldn’t immediately figure out who left behind the mystery gifts.
A shell garden is set up at the end of Keane’s block on 105th Street in Beach Haven Park directly in front of the beach access ramp. People leave behind shells or take them. When Keane noticed some shells were weather worn, she took them home to make them as good as new. It’s all about a Shellabration of nature’s beauty.
While surf clam shells are the most common to wash ashore the LBI beaches, many others make their way along the shoreline. Children and adults galore all seem to enjoy the game of hide and seek as demonstrated by the popularity of the Shelling on LBI Facebook page.
Shells as a canvas represent a rebirth in a sense. Special people turn coastal treasures that once protected live mollusks into memories of Long Beach Island as a fantastical place at the Jersey shore.