Celebrating the sea and the life that surrounds it – birds, shellfish and amphibians – is a passion for former Cape Henlopen High School art teacher Connie Miller. She depicts the ocean in drawings, scratchboards and intricate, delicate shell art.
Miller’s students will remember seeing her affix tiny shells in every color and tone to the inside of octagonal mahogany boxes as she created sailors’ valentines.
Miller became an art teacher almost by accident. On a liberal arts track at the University of Delaware, she was focusing on history and English. She went to an advisement session with a Ms. O’Neill, a lady she calls scary. “She asked me what my major was, and I said ‘uh …’,” Miller recounts on her porch in Wolfe Pointe. “And she said, ‘Art! Art? This is what you have to do to graduate next year,’ and she wrote down all the requirements for an art major,” said Miller.
With her other requirements out of the way, she spent the next year, including the summer session, taking the art courses she needed. She already had an education minor, so she was able to start student teaching at Brandywine High School, where she student taught with the football coach. “I walked in, and he said, ‘Connie Marshall, good! I’ve got football,’” and he walked out. “I was standing in front of a class that included my brother and his friends, and I told myself, if I can make it through this, I can be a teacher,” she said.
She taught 23 years total, including 17 in the Cape district. She was born in Lewes, but her family moved north when she was in school. Her father was one of only a few Delaware River pilots licensed for the Chesapeake and Delaware canal. They lived upstate but spent every spare minute in Lewes.
“We were here on the weekends and every summer. We’d leave at 5:30 or 6 in the morning to drive up and catch the bus when school started,” she said.
She and her husband, John, moved back to Lewes in 1982. Her first job in the Cape district was at Rehoboth Elementary School. She taught in the junior high schools in Milton and Rehoboth before joining the high school, where she worked 11 years before retiring in 2004.
In 2004, Miller said her work on sailors’ valentines was going well. “I loved teaching, but wanted to see what I could do on my own,” she said. Also, her first grandchild had just been born. “Life just changed, so I changed with it,” she said. “You shouldn’t put things off if you have the opportunity … you just should never put them off. Just do what you have the chance to do,” she said.
Now, she teaches at the Children’s Beach House and spends time with her five grandchildren and in Sanibel Island, Fla. She makes half a dozen sailors’ valentines a year, which she puts in shows across the country. She’s even coauthored a book about them.
Sailors’ valentines are intricate pieces of art, made by gluing seashells into octagonal boxes. The shells become birds, flowers and abstract shapes, highly sought-after pieces modeled on ones once made in the Caribbean. Sailors would purchase them and take them home to their wives and sweethearts. Victorian women also made them out of shells their seafaring husbands brought home, said Miller.
With three other sailors’ valentines artists, Miller penned a book on the history of sailors’ valentines illustrated with hundreds of photographs.
Beyond the valentines, she makes pictures with shells, including flowers, frogs and birds. “I love making birds out of shells,” she said. “It’s very difficult to make a realistic bird out of seashells.” The shell pictures are ornate, full of texture and dimension and very lifelike. Miller has them on display throughout her house alongside her scratchboards and drawings of birds and shells. One is of her husband in Florida, with a white egret that would come and sit on his head while he was fishing, she said.
Miller earned a master’s degree in printmaking, which she also taught at Cape. “I really enjoy etching and the line. I like drawing and the quality of the line,” she said. Teaching monoprinting was one of her favorites as a teacher, she said.
“I love scratchboard and teaching kids drawing,” she said. Paper sculptures and metamorphosis drawing were other favorites.
A few projects from her years in the art room of the old high school still stand out. Two projects students did for the Hercules Steps Up to Art program are particularly memorable. Students submitted 12- by 15-inch paintings and the winners were sent 6- by 8-foot canvases on which to reproduce them. Then, Josh Lowe, Morgan Mumford and Miller’s son Andy submitted a project called “Not Yet Forgotten.”
They carved it out of a 1,200-pound cylinder of dense Styrofoam that was about 12 feet high, she said. “It was a snake, a tuna, a fox and an eagle, all stuff that came from around here,” she said.
Living in Lewes, Miller said she often sees her former high school students around town. She now teaches ceramics, from basic pinch pots to wheel-thrown pottery, at the Children’s Beach House.