Since 1968, Nantucket Looms has been proud to represent our local craftspeople. We carry the works of over seventy different artisans, including painters, potters, basket weavers, jewelry makers and wood carvers. To honor those whose unique creations reflect the natural beauty and history of our beloved island, we will highlight an artist on our website every month. This month, meet Elizabeth Braun.
Sailor's Valentines have long intrigued Nantucketers. The myth, passed down since the island's whaling heyday, is that these intricate art pieces were made by sailors during their long voyages at sea as gifts for their wives and loved ones back home on Nantucket. Elizabeth Braun, a local island artist who specializes in creating these pieces, told us the truth behind the myth. Historians believe these charming souvenirs originated in the island of Barbados and the sailors would purchase them from the women there who made them using local shells, or in some cases using shells imported from Indonesia. Today, antique Sailor’s Valentines are valuable collectors’ items.
Elizabeth Braun remembers seeing her first Sailor’s Valentine on display at a Nantucket gallery one summer evening about 20 years ago. She was captivated by it. “The sweet thought and the intricate, delicate work captured me,” she recalled. “I wanted to learn more about this historic art.” Braun decided she was going to make one. She did, and it was just the beginning: she has been making them ever since. Braun still has that first Sailor’s Valentine. “The box is primitive, the shells limited and the design stilled and flat,” she said. “It’s not much to look at!”
Braun has come a long ways since making her first Valentine and is now considered one of the experts of the craft. We sell Braun’s Sailor’s Valentines at Nantucket Looms - and her precious collages crafted with shells, bound by the confines of the handmade cherry wood box - are sought after by customers who are as enchanted by their history as the artist first was two decades ago.
We think of Braun pacing the water’s edge on Nantucket and elsewhere, searching for shells – scalloped or smooth edged, creamy off-white or soft pink in color, flattened or rounded – amassing a working collection from which she can pluck just the perfect one for a piece. Some of the most beautiful shells come from the balmy waters of the Gulf of Mexico or the South Pacific, Braun explained, adding that some of those are sourced from dealers and various shows. "You would be really surprised at how much I find on the beaches", she says. "Nantucket has lots that I use and whenever I am near a beach, Florida, Mexico, etc., I spend a lot of time scouring the sand for treasures."
As one can imagine, there are many steps to creating a Sailor’s Valentine, starting with properly cleaning the shells, then sorting them by size and color so that the creative process can be controlled. Braun often adheres to traditional patterns and designs as a starting point, but frequently borrows from the geometry of the box to create designs that are more modern.
Once she has her “canvas” and materials ready, the creative process – “the fun part” begins; we asked her to tell us about that. “I include “flowers” in most of my Valentines and these can take several weeks to ‘grow’ as they are labor intensive with many stages of development. There are never too many…much the way I feel about garden flowers and cut ones for my home.
Patterns can be completed before beginning or they can evolve as the design grows. If I am working on a commission there will be consulting with my client on the design before beginning. There are some basic steps to beginning. The first is to find the center of the wood you are working on. And then the fun begins. The color palettes are subtle but amazingly there is a wide range of natural colors in the shells. Dyed shells are available; I find the natural colors, much like the natural materials, much more to my liking.”
Braun first visited Nantucket as a young child and has spent every summer on the island. She made it her year-round home nine years ago, moving into her beloved home, “Goodasnew” – which got its name after it was re-built following a devastating fire caused by a lightning strike. When she is not making a Sailor’s Valentine, she is teaching the craft, privately to small groups of students. We appreciate that she is keeping this true Nantucket tradition alive.