Wednesday morning, Matthew Anderson, Cherokee Nation cultural specialist and coordinator for the Cherokee Arts Center, began working on a shell carving to craft a necklace.

Shell carving was performed by ancient Southeast woodland people, according to Anderson.

"It wasn't for jewelry or ornamentation. It was for protection and prayers and blessings," he said. "The artist was responsible for putting positive energy into the art piece, the shell, they were carving."

Anderson said it takes a long time to hone a skill such as shell carving to where a piece can be created in one day. He has been carving shells since the 1970s.

"I started the traditional way, with river rock and sandstone. We teach that method, as well," he said. "Nothing about the old, ancient ways is simple. It's time-consuming and labor-intensive. We didn't have a cordless Dremel or lapidary grinder."

Not many people practice the art of shell carving any more. Cherokee National Living Treasure Knokovtee Scott has been mentoring others and leading a class at the Arts Center. Those classes will resume in September, but depending on Scott's health, Anderson may be teaching them. The class costs $65 and includes all materials including shells. Instruction can take two to four hours, but Anderson said it doesn't have to be done all at once; it can be done over a couple of weeks.

"A lot of people talk about art and the costs of classes, but you are learning something you can continue the rest of your life and pass on," Anderson said.

A pendant or necklace like he started Wednesday could retail for about $350.

The minimum to make a class is four people; the maximum class size is eight. Students must be 14 or older. Participants must sign a waiver of liability because of the tools and machines.

Mankiller Pearl Shells are the ones used for this art. This variety used to be called the purple shell mussel, according to Anderson. In 1988, the Cherokee Tribal Council passed a resolution naming the area's purple shell mussels the Mankiller Pearl Shell for then-Principal Chief Wilma Pearl Mankiller.

"The freshwater mussels are only found in this area and tributaries of the Mississippi River, like creeks, rivers, lakes," said Anderson.

The shells aren't much to look at in the beginning, Anderson admits. Most have dull black on the exterior, but the interior will be shiny and iridescent. The shells are very sturdy.

After selecting a shell, artists will look at it to determine which part to use for the piece being made.

"It depends on your ideas or how the shell speaks to you. The piece itself will tell you what it wants to be," said Anderson. "You can make several pieces from one shell. Make sure not to waste any of the shell."

Anderson uses a permanent marker to indicate the areas he wants to cut. The marks will come off the shell, he said.

When cutting the shell, it needs to have water on it to keep the dust down.

"The dust is toxic, like bone, sand, stone or clay," he said.

The saw Anderson uses at the Cherokee Arts Center spits water out while running. It also has a diamond-coated lapidated blade. A lapidary grinder is used to remove the outer bark.

This will expose the pink iridescent of the shell.

"One of the complicated parts about shell carving is deciding what design you are going to use because the shell itself is so beautiful," said Anderson. "The outside is now so beautiful you have to decide which side will be the front."

Once a rough square chunk has been made, the artist can use a lapidary grinder to define the design and make the edges smoother. The grinder has different belts so the user can go from rough to fine. A rock would be used to shape and file it if no grinder was available.

"The rough edges mechanical tools leave can only be gotten rid of with hand tools, like files and sandpaper," Anderson said. "If no sandpaper is available, you'd use a sandstone piece with edges that could get into the corners."

The sandpaper is kept wet, and Anderson sanded with a tub of water nearby so he could rewet it and the shell. Progressively finer grit sandpaper is used until the piece shines.

"It has a natural shine. You won't have to put a polish on," said Anderson.

The piece can then be further carved or inscribed.

On Wednesday, Anderson was making a pendant, and the basic shape was similar to an addition symbol.

"When missionaries first came to the area, the continent, the Southeast people had what they [missionaries] thought was a crucifix. It's actually a symbol for fire or the sun," he said. "I like to incorporate those old designs."

At the Arts Center, a drill press would be used to make a hole for the jewelry attachment.

"When Europeans came, we were already doing metal work, so they'd use a metal tip. You could also use another shell or rock to make the hole," said Anderson. "It would probably be done from each side."

Anderson said it is getting hard to find the shells.

"We are losing the habitat for our mussel shells. If you are fond of the beauty of shells and the art of shell carving, be responsible and do not pollute our waters," he said.

Learn more

For more information on the shell carving class at the Cherokee Arts Center, 212 S. Water Ave., email or call 918-453-5728.

Recommended for you