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Saltwater Portrait

Kimberly Brown: Lewes teacher creates artwork with tiny shells

Making sailor’s valentines a therapeutic outlet for retired empty-nester
August 27, 2019

On a whim, Kimberly Brown shared a photo of her latest creation, a mermaid mosaic crafted with tiny shells, on the Facebook group I Love Lewes.

She was blown away by group members’ enthusiastic responses: about 1,500 people liked or commented on the photo. Many asked her to sell the piece or give lessons on how to create them. “I had no idea it would be such a big deal. You don’t see sailor’s valentines every day, I guess,” she laughed.

Although Kimberly was born in Wilmington and grew up near Washington, D.C., her Cape Region roots run deep. Her father Larry Kieffer and grandmother Mildred Kieffer both grew up in Lewes, so she visited often. In fact, she was a child walking through downtown Rehoboth when she first saw a sailor’s valentine. 

“It was wall-size and glass-enclosed in a side street mall off Rehoboth Avenue, maybe around Village by the Sea? I was mesmerized by it,” she said. 

After high school, she worked in a D.C.-area department store, where she met her husband. He was a couple years older and attended a different school. “All through college, I joked with my roommate that I was going to marry Bob Brown,” she smiled. “I had no reason to even think I would see him again, but he was the type of guy I could see myself settling down with.”

While student teaching her senior year, Kimberly started working part time at the same department store, where she learned timing is everything: Bob was working there, too.

After her graduation, they moved to Chicago and got married. Kimberly worked first in a luxury hotel and then in corporate marketing for several years. After moving to Hershey to raise their children near family, Kimberly opened her own public relations and graphic design firm. Life seemed settled. But after 9/11, things changed.

“I didn’t lose anyone, but it made me take a step back and evaluate my priorities,” she said. “I realized I didn’t want to spend my career helping others make money. I wanted to do something more meaningful. I decided to be a teacher.”

So, 20 years after she earned her degree, Kimberly returned to the classroom, taking a long-term substitute job at Hershey High School that turned into a permanent position. Before she knew it, she was chair of the English department. She’s worked as an instructional coach for the past two years before retiring in June.

A year ago, she and Bob sold their condo on Hickman Street’s ocean block and bought a house in Lewes. Bob, who retired from Hershey Foods, now drives the transport van for Beebe Healthcare’s physical therapy patients.

With children Katie and Allison out of school and living on their own, Kimberly, who was an art minor in college, yearned for a creative outlet. “I’ve always been artistic, and I use that term loosely,” she laughed. “I enjoy creating things. It makes me lose track of time.”

Kimberly remembered the sailor’s valentine in Rehoboth that had fascinated her as a child. She looked for it, but it was gone, and she could find no trace of its existence on Google. She decided to try creating one of her own. 

Making a sailor’s valentine is an intricate, time-consuming craft that dates to the 1800s, when sailors would purchase them in the Caribbean for their wives and sweethearts. By gluing shells into octagonal boxes, artists create flowers, patterns, and in Kimberly’s recent case, a soaring mermaid holding a trumpet shell.

While sailor’s valentines are typically made in small octagonal boxes, Kimberly used a shadowbox frame to start. “Octagonal boxes are expensive, and I didn’t want to invest a lot of money without knowing what I was doing,” she laughed.

She starts with an idea for the center, such as a heart or seahorse. Working directly on the canvas or wood surface, she uses tacky glue and rice shells, cowries, rosecups and other delicate tropical shells to make symmetrical patterns, roses and sea life. “Others use hot glue, but I find it doesn’t hold as well,” she said. “Tacky glue is less brittle and can withstand temperature changes better.”

Kimberly said the work is tedious but therapeutic. “It takes lots of tiny shells, tweezers and patience!”

Each piece requires hundreds of shells, and some Hawaiian and rice shells commonly used in traditional valentines can cost $10 a teaspoon. So far, she has made eight valentines; she has given four as gifts. After the requests on Facebook to sell her mermaid or teach classes, she looked into pricing.

“Smaller ones than the one I made go for upwards of $1,000! That seems like a lot to ask,” she said. “If I make smaller ones, I’d be more comfortable selling them in a reasonable price range.”

As a new adjunct English instructor at Delaware Technical Community College, Kimberly said she’ll consider teaching how to create sailor’s valentines when she feels like an expert in the shellcraft. “I wasn’t ready to stop teaching, but I didn’t want to do it full time,” she said. “I love teaching. It has been the highlight of my career.”