By Kit Oz
I started painting oyster shells last year, as a lark. I’d seem some Dutch oyster shells painted with blue and white china patterns, and thought they were beautiful. As I have easy access to oysters here in Seattle, I thought it would be fun to take the idea of painting shells and make it my own, with a Pacific Northwest twist.
I studied Natural Science Illustration at the University of Washington, and painting the flora and fauna of coastal areas seemed like a natural fit for the canvas of the shells.
As each shell is unique in its shape and coloration, so too is each painting. I choose my subjects to fit the shell in hand, holding it in the light and tilting it until I can begin to see what flower or creature might suit it best. Sometimes I start at the other end, imagining a painting and then digging through my milk crates full of shells until I find the perfect fit for the image in my head.
The pearlescent, undulating interior of a shell makes a challenging canvas, but one that can yield surprising results when the variations of the shell are allowed to shine through the paint. There’s something pleasingly tactile about the shells, as well: they invite people to hold them, to feel the chalky rough exterior, and to slide a fingertip over the finished, glossy artwork.
Once I’d painted a few shells, I began to think about selling them. Ideally, I would do so in a way that meant someone else handled the business end: interacting with customers; collecting money and sales tax; packing and shipping. While I’m able to do those things, I dislike it. I wanted to be left free to paint. That meant finding a brick and mortar store to carry the shells.
What better store than the shop at the Seattle Art Museum?
I met with the head buyer, she said an enthusiastic yes, and my shells are now for sale in the front shop window at the museum. I, meanwhile, am happily at home, painting in a quiet room and giving not a thought to what percentage sales tax to charge on a piece shipped to California.
My autism has been a guiding factor in my life, although I didn’t know I was autistic until a year ago. I saw reflections of myself in videos of women talking about their autism, began to suspect that they were my tribe, and eventually sought an evaluation with a psychologist. At the age of 52 I got my diagnosis. It was a relief to know that I wasn’t just making this up, and that there really was something different about me.
Having a diagnosis meant that I no longer had to feel vaguely guilty about preferring to be alone in my home studio, writing or drawing, instead of being out socializing. My loathing of noise suddenly made sense, and my aversion to binding clothes and shoes.
Some of my differences have also, unexpectedly, been my strengths. I have alexithymia: a poor awareness of my own emotions. Often this has served me well, as my anxieties and fears are distant enough that I can sometimes shut them off completely. That’s a useful thing before getting up to speak in front of a group, or walking into an art museum and asking them to sell your painted shells.
My attention to detail comes out in my art, and my need to get things “right.” I research a plant or animal before I paint it, making sure I understand how it is put together. If I understand it, then I have the keys to manipulating it to make the image that I want.
My fondness for analysis comes into play as I study historical art, learning the methods used to achieve effects and evaluating what makes a picture work for me – or not. The more I learn, the more tools I have to play with, and I can use them to express my own vision of the world.
And then there is sheer, dogged persistence. My previous career was as a Romance novelist (under a different name), and it took me ten years to get my first book published. Then I wrote 28 more, and eventually ended my career writing for Simon & Schuster. My career shift to artist has been equally challenging, but I knew that art is a craft that can be learned, and that I would get where I wanted to go if I kept taking classes and growing, and didn’t give up.
I was aiming at being a children’s book illustrator, not an oyster shell artist, but life has a way of surprising you. Along the way to my illustrator goal I’ve taken some other detours, as well: I designed a series of nautical-themed, blue and white tiles for a ceramicist; I also designed several fabric patterns for Spoonflower, and t-shirts that are sold on Amazon.
I haven’t given up on the book illustrating. I wrote a kids’ chapter book about an autistic dog that is waiting for my illustrations, and even if it takes me another ten years to do it, I will. Because that’s who I am: an autistic artist who never gives up.
To find out more about the oyster shells, the nautical tiles, or my book and other art, visit my website: https://kitozbooks.com
A native of the Pacific Northwest, Kit Oz spent summers on the shores of the Salish Sea exploring mudflats and tide pools. Her love of her home region is expressed through paintings of the natural world, using the glowing, pearlescent inner surface of oyster shells as both canvas and inspiration. Kit studied Natural Science Illustration at the University of Washington, and is a multi-published fiction author under a different name.