Claire Begheyn MFA

About the shell pieces

Archaeologists, working in southeastern Spain, recently reported that they have found signs that Neanderthals were using seashells in a decorative and symbolic way. So, it seems that employing seashells in art is not an original idea. But as an artist, I bring things up to date and by doing so I bring the mysteries of the seas bottom up to the surface.

Shells have a ground in childhood. To be on the beach and see and find all the treasures is a feeling that does not leave us as adults. Who does not have (memories of) shells? Who does not have (had) shells?

When I was a child, we went on vacation to the Dutch South West coast. There were big piers with huge basalt blocks. In between these blocks were little square openings and the sea made little lakes of them. I loved to sit on my feet with bended knees to look for the treasures the water was hiding. And I found little shells that I took to our vacation home. Being there with my treasures the deception began: when the shells dried the colors were almost gone! In the Netherlands not many shaped and decorated shells are found on the beach. So color was my main reason to collect them I suppose.

I found a way to make these shells more beautiful and glued little glass beads on them. I always had a lot of patience to do this kind of work. It took forever and I loved doing it.

Maybe I am trying to retrieve lost innocence and a feeling of my nostalgia for my early years!

The first shell piece I made as an adult, many years later, was in 2007. How come is untraceable but I had been working with the content to fuse the manmade with nature. In 2000 I had a show in the new Museum of Natural History, Naturalis (to show and prove the immeasurable inspiration of nature on artists), in Leiden. My first pieces from this content were on display there. For the first time I used baroque pieces of furniture and animal type additions.

I do come from a long European history regarding decoration, Baroque and Rococo elements upon and in buildings and living in the center of Amsterdam confronts me daily with this unique heritage. In my parents home a lot of paintings, sculptures and objects were hanging and standing. Not my taste and I did not like it, yet the unconscious influence had a bigger impact than I ever could imagine.

Claire Begheyn’s favorite artistic medium are shells which she ‘re-contextualizes’ into complex compositions and in natural contrast to or in dialogue with manmade objects. Generally, these are parts of furniture like the leg of a table/chair or part of a gilt mirror in rococo style. The range of the pieces of furniture she uses is between antique and kitschy imitation.

The wall objects thus created evoke a reminiscence of late Renaissance grottoes or Rococo decorations. Her work is playful, elegant and associative. It explores the fine line between art and decoration and between high art and popular culture.

Madelon Broekhuis. Art Historian.

From: Wonders and the order of Nature. Lorraine Daston. Katharine Park.

’Grottoes and Wunderkammern were prime sites for artificial nature: Palissy planned a grotto encrusted with casts of shells and reptiles for the Tuileries. Descartes’ physiology may have been inspired by the automata in the Grotto of Perseus at Saint-Germain-en Laye. The technique of casting snakes, frogs, lizards, and shells in bronze spread from Padua to Nuremberg to Paris in the early sixteenth century. Palissy used casts in ceramic and enamel, shells and animals, to decorate gardens and ornamental platters’.

One of my wishes is at one point to use the shell as an on it’s own standing medium in a complete room and cover all walls and maybe the ceiling. But maybe it is wise to first make a ‘cabinet of wonders’ on a smaller scale! Although all my shell pieces are ‘cabinets of wonders’ or ‘kunst und wunderkammer’ on its own!

Shells have been used in painting a lot too. I live around the corner of Museum Rembrandt’s house. And they reconstructed part of his studio where he kept his ‘curiosa’. At those times we could travel over the sea and bring treasures back we had never seen before. On the shelves of Rembrandt ‘treasures’ are a lot of shells. Also there are numerous paintings by many different artists on which shells can be found. Often they are part of a still life. Each of my works is a still life on its own. It is a microcosm of what is found on the bottom of the sea or on the beach. The frame embeds the curiosities nature composed.

Shells served as a source of inspiration for art, literature and architecture (Guggenheim?) and are even used as objects of value, to indicate status (Rijksmuseum Amsterdam has a few), and as money. We built an unbreakable band with seashells that influenced many aspects of our culture. Museums are having huge collections and we encounter shells in art, architecture, religion and as food. We bear them, collect them, traded with them and use them as decoration upon our bodies and in our houses.

Symbolic meanings of shells: Greek mythology: attribute of Venus. Wagon of the god Neptunus, seanimph Galaea and sometimes of Fortuna. Christianity: attribute of the Virgin Mary. Attribute of the pilgrims. Sometimes shells are in the hands of Joan the Baptist when he is baptizing Christ. Also used in Catholic churches to carry the water when you enter the church, to make a cross with.

The largest shells found today are the giant clams, Tridacna gigas, of the western Pacific-up to four feet in length. The large fossil Nautili are believed to be about 360,000,000 years old.

Nature, plants, animals and shells especially, provides the inspiration for Claire Begheyn, resulting in works that comment on the ways in which contemporary Western society transforms plants, animals and shells, into ornamentation. With her floral, animal and shell works Begheyn wryly explores the boundary between our dependency on land and sea animals for our survival and plants as food for animals and human beings. In the baroque pieces of furniture Begheyn freely uses, combined with the bodies out of nature, the appreciation for and exploitation of natural forms come together and get a relationship with the human body.

Source unknown.

Shell shapes and patterns

The growth is only at the border of the shell. When a pattern is formed it does not change anymore. In every phase of the process a new layer of shell is added to the existing one. This means that the pattern is a graphic in time and space of the chemical dynamics of the pigments that are resided.

The shell grows because the inhabitant resides minerals that are deleted from its outer ‘coat’.

The patterns are varied but can be divided into some basic types. For example: stripes, dots, waving stripes and semi-rhythmical patterns with triangles and zigzag-lines.

With simple mathematical recipes we can construct shells in three dimensions. Nature must play similar games!

From: What shape is a Snowflake? Weidenfeld & Nicholson.

Shells and art

Shells have always been considered ‘artifices of nature’ and therefore a tangible reflection of the wonder and perfection of Creation. George Perry, in his introduction to the Natural History of Shells, reflected on how these objects with their astoundingly complex architecture based on a logarithmic spiral; invite the viewer to contemplate divine excellence. In Christian tradition, the shell that produces a pearl without the need for male insemination became a symbol of the virginity of the Madonna.

From: Shells. Antoine-Joseph Dezallier d’Argenville. Taschen.

Decorative aspects

First, we ornamented ourselves with shells. These days I decorate spaces with sculptures made with shells. By their bizarre shape, incredible colors and beautiful drawings on them shells are one of the most attractive creatures of nature. Not only are they beautiful; to hold them and look at them and feel the ‘holding’ aspect of one of them is a very especial feeling. In nature all the aspects we consider as decorative have a function. We can look at it as decoration, but pure function is what it is about. We use natural shapes as decoration and make it into a use for our homes and environment. For example, on the wooden frames I make you can see many beautiful leaves, shells, grapes and other decorative elements. So, nature is brought back on the wood, which is nature itself, and we are enjoying this (recycling) thought by buying these items. From: The sense of order. E.H.Gombrich: There is no tribe or culture which lacks a tradition of ornamentation. Only the 20th century has witnessed the final elevation of pattern-making into the autonomous activity of ‘abstract art’.

From: The Mediation of Ornament

Decoration: anything applied to a structure or an object that is not necessary to the stability, use, or understanding of that structure or object. Ornament: any decoration that has no referent outside of the object on which it is found, except in technical manuals.


The ordening of data (objects or attributes) according to groups that from sets.

House of animal

At Cranbrook Art Academy (MI) I studied architecture as a minor for two years (the second one Daniel Libeskind was the teacher). I studied spaces we erect around us to protect ourselves, seizes, scale, light etc. (this research resulted in commissions for public buildings when I went back to the Netherlands after graduation). We need air so we have a lot of space around our physical bodies and windows and doors to be opened and closed. But the creatures that live in these shells are one with their house in the water. They increase it when they grow and need more space. Or they have one opening to go out and in from or there is a muscle which can open their house. The work is very much about the vulnerability of the soft animals protected by hard shells they make themselves to protect themselves. The houses of the sea animals are also a metaphor for us and the protection our house gives to our vulnerability and doing so us as human beings. Protected by it yet there are always many dangers: nature: water, wind, fire, earthquakes and people who can steal or betray you.

The manmade structures around the shells protect these ultimate breakable shapes and forms. The shells are bound together as a huge shield against danger. They will never be alone anymore!


In every shell the whole evolution is contained. All life derived from the sea. Not only where there sea animals, also plants and corals live there.

And we use nature in many ways. In the museum of the American Indian in New York I saw a spoon made out of shells. They were also used to drink from, weight for fishing nets, means of communication to give signals through like a trumpet, water carriers.

All about nature and use

The shell pieces are about life itself. To live and to survive. Eat and be eaten. The fragile soft animal makes its own house to resist all dangers. Architects in the sea. Houses made out of chalk. The animal has a lot of enemies. I do have a bunch of shells with a perfectly drilled hole in it: the drilling animal outside sucks the soft creature through the shell to feed himself. So being a creature living in the sea is very much a matter of survival and flight.

The work is crafted a lot. Crafts have always helped in our survival as mankind. Actually we would not have survived as species without them. All shells are crafted in a genius manner. I cannot believe how it is done.

Works in the Bill Lowe gallery

The brown color has been sandblasted or taking away by hand! That way I deprive the wood from the connotation with furniture. The wood gets its own identity and is ‘naked’. I need this ‘emptiness’ to free myself from any prejudice so my mind is totally open into the process of creating. I make the ground for the actually work and then my own space and time starts: working as an artist means that time and space vanish. I am my work and after the work is done, I do not understand my state of mind during the work of creation. This is very peculiar and is the key in my work. 

The unconsciousness guides me, and I work from there. Totally concentrated. When I pause or do other things and go back later, I need a while to concentrate again on the content and the same intuitive process starts and continues. Until the work is finished, working with the shells I mean. While working the frame and shells become a unity and become literally bound, that is where my search is about. I emphasize this by painting on the surface of the wood after completion of the center of the wooden construction. This binds natural forms and manmade pieces of wood together. I work as long as is needed to create the optimum binding of the two components. Interesting enough I start with the human side of the pieces, nature is the most important to experience where the piece is about, and my human touch with paint and or gold leaf makes it into the artwork I was looking for from the beginning. 

It is a slow process and takes a lot of time, as it is very intensive work. I like working that way. Usually I work on more than one piece at the same time. They can be in a different stage of development. That way I move around when I do not know how to continue. The ‘thinking’ continues while I work on other frames, fillings, shell works and so on. I am highly selective in the shells I use in one work. They determine the visual and determine the connection to the manmade frames and are the character of that particular piece of art. In the larger pieces, I arrange the shells so that there is a balance between the right and the left side without either being the mirror image of the other. The end result is the combination of nature’s organic originality and man’s creative craftsmanship. As a direct result, the final product is always captivating as it is unique*.

The making of the work

The shell pieces do have their origin in the manmade. The frames are made of beautifully carved pieces of wood; shells are having an only decorative function next to leaves, grapes and other decorative elements. Actually, the furniture comes from ‘Kitch’ pieces of furniture: couches and chairs. In the smaller pieces frames that are what they are, with baroque elements, are used. F.e. mirror frames, picture frames and so on.

I took the couches and chairs apart and assembled them in new ways. Sandblasting has stripped off all paint. At that point I am totally black about the content and color of the piece in the near future.

The first idea how to start the piece will be shells. They have to be able to make a connection to the frame regarding seize, shape and color. I arrange them and the beginning is there. In total concentration I build the piece on and on until I am satisfied about the complexity, total composition, color and so on. In the last phase I paint the frame and often glue gold-leaf on it to give it a beautiful luster.


Nature is unbelievably impressive. Every shell is a piece of sculpture on its own. Looking at all the piles of shells I possess I am wondering all the time about the infinite variety of shapes, colors and sizes and about their history. The thought that a small weak animal made these houses is a true miracle to me.

The resulting wall hanging objects after choosing the shells is amazing looking at the variety and complexity of forms and nuances of colors in the shells. My compositions are as organic as is the material.

Beauty in art is very questionable if one uses it as a starting point. I strongly believe in this quality. I want to make the world more beautiful. This is a metaphor for all the suffering and cruelty. The complexity of the totals overcomes the ‘being only beautiful’. Beauty is not just there: it is created with a lot of effort. The works invite the viewer to connect to what is seen. It takes time to become one with what invites you to look at. The effect is hopefully that the viewer thinks about what is there, what is the invitation? Where is this work about? It will be an interesting analysis to read or hear by other persons than the maker. I am curious.

We always wanted to create beauty. We started 30 – 40.000 years ago to treat, craft and use shells. Cut and treated shells are discovered in different early cultures in the USA, Africa and Europe. They are also found in ceramic art of many early American cultures, like the Aztecs and inhabitants of the early Peru.

Almost nobody stays untouched by looking at the beauty of shells. The enchantment touches us deeply.


The frame of Venus is not assembled. It is a very rare frame; someone found it on a second hand market for me. I have never seen something like it. It reminds me of baroque frames for paintings I saw in the Rijksmuseum of Amsterdam. 

The only really big shell I possessed was waiting a long time to be used. I had a little picture of the birth of Venus by Botticelli, early Renaissance, where Venus rises out of the shell as metaphor for the sea where she came from and was brought to Cyprus. And the shape of her body, the S shape, really appealed to me to get a new movement in my work. So, I used this image as a starting point for the ‘Venus’ shell piece. Born from the foam of the sea. (I think this painting must have inspired Michelangelo about 100 years later for his painting of the birth of Adam by God and the way David is standing is also derived from this poisture). She is the goddess of light, beauty and love, the true spirit, that is a great connection where my work is about. Love for nature’s forces and expressed in beauty. To emphasize the S shape, contraposto, I glued dark mussels around her, also a new development to use the shells in such contrasting colors. I never felt a female artist, but I cannot deny this feminine quality in my work.

A visitor to my studio said the imagery reminded him of the Olympia by Monet. I thought that was an interesting viewpoint. The color black is all around Olympia. But I think we should sell this piece to Shell Headquarters as they have the scallop in their logo! Tridacna Gigas, the giant clam I am using is the largest and heaviest known mollusk. I took no risk and glued it with epoxy West system. It is very rare to receive such a shell.

The two long horizontal works

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The top sides of couches are used, two, to make a carrier for the center part of the work. At one point we started to make furniture out of wood. We cut the tree, saw it and started carving the wood. Although wood is nature, we started to bring back nature carving leaves, flowers and shells on it. So, we took the richness of nature into our houses. And the pieces of ‘Kitsch’ furniture I use were also a gimmick of the people and a longing for a better life instead of the daily suffering. It also gave a good indication of the ‘wealth’ of the owner of the furniture and the luxury life (they were longing for). The horizon is the border to the sea and the sky. The shells from the sea bottom or the beach are connected to this feminine quality of horizontals.


The frame of a mirror conducted me. This is one of the few pieces where I worked upon the frame first. A lot of gold leave is used as I admired the beauty of the frame and its fineness a lot. There is a lot to see. To enable the frame to get full attention I decided to use these reflecting shells from a beach in Portugal.


In this piece of sculpture, the frame of the back of a chair is extremely visible. It shows the forms very clearly. As the shapes were so clearly defined in the structure of the frame, I left it like that and treated it with a lot of respect, almost minimalistic. What makes the piece very interesting is the rhythm. Rhythms come back everywhere and form a total the way life is a continuous concert of many rhythms. Nature has rhythms and everything in the garden reacts on it. Birth itself and the previous conception, is a total rhythmic experience. And the cycle of life of species also has underlying rhythms as the waves of the seas which have a very constant movement. One two is the simplest r. I used hole shells and folded them open. The one two one two movement can be felt and maybe has an effect upon the viewer.


My search in the work is about space and non-space. Fore and background. The flowery shape is about growth. I like to develop the thought of open space more. The background is white leaf gold. I can imagine I extend shapes like this freely on top of a wall and or ceiling and try to work without the frame but using the ‘frame’ of the corners as the edges of the work, or not in case the imagery goes over the edges. It will be an interesting new way of working with the beauty of shells.


Back to the beginning. A pink shell in the ‘lake’ of the pier in SW Holland. Me sitting on my feet with bended knees. On and of pink has been a favorite color of me. The color makes me happy and surprises me all the time. The frame is very unusual and has been made of parts of many couches and chairs. To find these happens ones in a lifetime! I really love the shape and beauty of this piece. It makes me very happy. Although I had no thought at all about this: we are a very tolerant city and we do have a monument for the gays, and it is pink. As it is the color for the gays.

Two black pieces

I never knew there are so many grey and black shells. I had piles of them and their shades (I hardly dare to use this word nowadays) of grey (!, I could not read the first book, really hated it and very badly written, and I think I have to finish this paper soon!!! J), white and black is an on-going source of inspiration for me. The neutral expression allows me to work very freely and gives a big independency.


In flower I used a real antique piece of wood as a starting point. I found it in an antique store and loved the shape and color of it. I placed it centrally in the frame. The frame had been in my studio for a long time and underwent many changes. But all of a sudden everything came together. The frame reminds me of curtains on stage. And see: the curtains are open and you can fully see the beauty of the plants shape surrounded by the black mussels. All the pieces of wood get full attention and are not hidden. Natural and manmade ornamentation are fully bound together giving the right of existence to each other by doing so.


Although a female name it has no connection with a human being but with the colors I used. I sorted out my shells and found many lila colored ones in the pile. They attracted me a lot and I started working. This piece is very much about the chaos in universe from which all life derived once upon a time. But in Nature chaos can also be looked at as a new order and patterns. From: ‘Chaos. Making a new science’, James Gleick: ‘although highly mathematical in origin, chaos is a science of the everyday world, addressing questions every child has wondered about: how clouds form, how smoke rises, how water eddies in a stream’. And I like to add: how shells are made. Total confusion and panic can lead towards what is sought for. It is my most complex piece regarding the organization of the shells.