LONG BEACH, Wash. - It took Curtis Bade seven years to find his niche, but in December he had an epiphany.
Now the retired Boeing design engineer is creating oyster shell sculptures.
"I was at the Seafood Festival last year in Nahcotta and saw someone eat a giant oyster, so I asked for the shell," Bade said. "I took the time to clean and lacquer it and ended up giving it as a Christmas present after I hot-glued a marble inside. I gave away about half a dozen shells for presents - and everyone loved them."
Bade's idea to create sculptures drew on his artistic flair. The pieces are carefully designed flower or cluster arrangements made from dozens of oddly shaped and colored oyster shells.
It all starts with finding the right kind of shells.
"The different oyster companies have been great. I have permission to look in their huge piles for just the right kind of shells," Bade said. "I usually take Monday and Tuesday to gather the shells and Wednesday and Thursday to clean them."
His goal is to produce three sculptures a week. He is on target since he began in January, and was at the Willapa Seafood Festival selling the best ones this weekend.
He and his sister Carol Laurie use soap and water, elbow grease, toothpicks and toothbrushes and then more elbow grease to clean out the shells. Bade gathers mussels and other types of shells from the beach, Willapa Bay and the rocking area around Beards Hollow.
"I do not use any foreign shells. Everything comes from right here locally."
After cleaning, each shell is lacquered and dried. Bade was a design engineer for 19 years and has done artwork since his first cartoon was completed when he was four.
"I still have that cartoon. I have taken several art classes over the years and have worked in oils, charcoal, and ink drawings," he said.
He makes flower designs that range from six inches to 18 inches in diameter.
"I begin with a cockle shell and then hot glue oyster shells around it for the base. Once I have the base, I use smaller oyster shells to make smaller and smaller circles. To find small oyster shells that are not broken can be difficult." At times Bade will use sundry shells to add character or cover slight imperfections.
He uses hot glue to secure the pieces, places a marble in the center and applies enough pressure to make them stand out like flower petals.
"I create shims and wedges to make each shell fit together just right," he said. "After all, I was an engineer for years."
He usually receives the clusters from Ken Wiegardt and he gathers mussels from the rocks at Beards Hollow. He uses oyster shells for the center of the base of the larger cluster designs and applies mussels to fill in the patterns. A Japanese glass float is sometimes used to set off the center of the finished product.
Bade figures his sculptures take anywhere from six to about 20 hours to complete, depending on size. One trick he uses to open the shells without damaging them is to freeze then thaw them. When he is finished with the final product, he sprays a lacquer one last time to bring out the colors and patterns.
"There are left-hand shells, right-hand shells, cupped ones, flat ones, you name it," Bade said.
Sister Carol Laurie added, "The gold-colored ones are the best."
The finished product is sturdy, but has the feel of glass, according to Bade. Laurie suggested using a hair dryer set on low speed to clean the sculptures, that can either be hung or placed on a table for presentation.
One cluster features an elongated, thin shell in the center that is strikingly shaped and colored like a picture of the Madonna. "That one is definitely not for sale," Laurie said.