Finding a unique gift to give that special someone for Valentine’s Day can be challenging, but not if you know Julie Ghidoni, the Oyster Shell Queen. A self-taught artist, Ghidoni won several awards for her talent in high school where her first “commissions” were doodles requested on friends’ binders.
“My mother was also an artist and so is my 28-year-old son. I guess it runs in the family,” she muses.
Ghidoni’s venture into painting on oyster shells began about a year ago. “I was going on little treks on Sylvan Beach in La Porte with my husband who has a metal detector and picking up found items along the way,” Julie recalls.
“I tried painting on driftwood first, and sold a few of those pieces. Then one day I picked up an oyster shell and noticed what a smooth surface it had to paint on.”
“I painted a couple and started looking at what other people were doing that might be similar. No one was hand painting them—I only saw decoupage,” she states. That is how she decided to set her work apart from others.
“The first shells I found were by Monument Inn seafood restaurant on a little beach,” Julie remembers. Since then, she has located some prime locations for her shell hunts.
“I’ll fill up a couple of bags with shells, bring them home, put them in buckets of bleach water, and wash them really well to prepare them. Some I paint on the natural interior surface and others I’ll spray paint a white background to create a smoother finish to paint on.”
“The shells are from the natural reefs, washed up onto the shore where I dig them out of the sand,” she explains. “Sometimes I find the natural heart shapes, and get so excited!”
Shells she gathers but does not use are returned to the beach. “I take them back and put them into the water, because oyster shell recycling is important for the reefs.”
Soon after she started working with the shells, Julie met her former boss for lunch. “He asked what I had been doing, so I showed him a couple of my shells. He immediately said he needed to order some for his nephew’s upcoming beach wedding,” she shares enthusiastically.
“And that’s how it started.” She painted bride and groom shells adorned with crystals and others with a variety of seaside scenes for the occasion.
From there, word spread and her business took off, resulting in orders from Brooklyn, Seattle, San Francisco, Arizona, and as far away as Australia. “My husband told me I need to get a map and place pins everywhere I’ve sent them,” Julie shares.
Her husband also came up with the name Oyster Shell Queen, and he sometimes claims the finished products for himself, favoring the tugboats and ocean themes.
Julie uses a spare bedroom in her home as her studio. “I have my shells in milk crates sorted by size, and a big, L-shaped desk to work on by a window,” she says.
The artist draws inspiration from the things she loves and vignettes she dreams up, but Julie also takes custom orders including designs for holidays like Valentine’s Day and Mardi Gras.
“I get really random requests sometimes,” the artist smiles. One of her most unexpected design requests was for a shell featuring an Iowa farm scene.
“I’ve never been to Iowa, so I Googled images and came up with a design.” The recipient was thrilled with the final product, which included hay bales and a windmill.
Her most unusual order was from a young boy who was doing a school project about the 50 states. “The oyster shell is the state shell of Virginia…who knew? I painted Virginia’s state bird on a shell for his shadowbox display.”
“After the Lyceum in Galveston featured me on their Facebook page, I got an order to paint the church with the stained glass on a shell along with someone’s name and their wedding date,” she describes.
“I’ve also done the Hotel Galvez for the author of the new book about the history of the hotel and the Mardi Gras arch in front of the Tremont. I’ll paint just about whatever people would like on a shell.”
“One of the Housewives of Orange County ordered 40 oyster shell ornaments with New Orleans theme designs for a Christmas Mardi Gras party she was having,” Ghidoni says. “And a gentleman that works for HBO in New York has ordered several and took some to Hawaii as Christmas gifts.”
However, most of her commissions are closer to home. “I created one with a portrait of a house for one lady in Galveston who was selling a beautiful Victorian home that she loved.”
Each of her works is unique, and some are gilded with gold paint around the edges or rhinestones for extra flair. “I like a lot of color and sparkle,” she laughs. In addition to individual pieces, Julie has made several for use as wine tags, ring trays, and multiple shell wreaths.
Ghidoni usually charges between $15 and $35 per shell, depending on the detail involved in the project. Larger, more involved items might cost more. “I try to keep the price affordable. People who buy more than 35 at a time from my Etsy shop aren’t charged for shipping,” she adds.
Giving a new life to the discards from the sea as pieces of art to be enjoyed, Ghidoni says, “They always say do what you love and the money will follow, and it’s kind of true!” With celebrities including Christy Brinkley beginning to discover her unique creations, the world is truly about to be Julie’s oyster.
Find Julie Ghidoni’s artwork on instagram at @theoystershellqueen and Etsy.com/Shop/TheOysterShellQueen.