By Nadia Arumugam

ArtExpo NY, 2209

For most of us, a mention of shellfish may conjure up thoughts of garlicy mussels, steamed Littleneck clams or simply shucked oysters with a squeeze of lemon. Alla Baksankaya thinks of showgirls, toucans and the personification of evil.

It’s not because the Brooklyn based artist is prone to strange imaginings or under the influence of a mind-altering drug, but because she uses seashells to create her unique three-dimensional artwork. At the 2009 International Artexpo in New York, Baksankaya, a first time exhibitor, displays a collection of her favorite works. A pair of toucans whose piercing black tail feathers are offset with accents of yellow, red, green and blue and made from painted clam shells hang alongside a guitar playing Rastafarian intricately crafted from scallop, mussel and yellow lutorine shells. Lilac and midnight blue Irises composed of oyster shells look down on two singing dusty pink and mocha Canarium seashell birds. A modern interpretation of the Statue of Liberty, a moving tribute to the victims of 9/ll, a vivid underwater scene of rainbow colored swimming fish; Baksankaya’s creativity with shells seems limitless.

Baksankaya, who moved to the U.S. from Azerbaijan 15 years ago, scours miles of shoreline in search of material for her art. She and her two teenage sons will frequently travel to Coney Island and Brighton Beach. And when they vacation further a field to Miami, Key West and Cape Cod, Baksankaya combs the beach for interesting and unusual specimens to add to her seashell, sea urchin and star fish collections while the rest of the family enjoy the waves. And it’s not always perfectly formed, whole shells that she seeks. Sometimes, when Baksankaya trawls through the labeled compartments of her shell organizer for the perfect piece to complete a dancer’s shoe or the decorative edging on a Venetian mask, a tiny fragment of a scallop or oyster shell is all she needs.

As for Baksankaya’s technique, she explains in her idiosyncratic English that it’s as organic as the material she uses. She begins by scattering her latest finds on a base, usually wood, preferably recycled or salvaged from the sea. Then she moves them around with her fingers as if she is “figuring out a puzzle,” she says and a “picture” will appear out of the mass of shapes on the base. Baksankaya will develop the image with more shells, sea urchin exoskeletons or starfish until she has fleshed out a complete collage. She then fixes the pieces in place with multipurpose glue. If the shells are attractive with unusual or colorful natural hues, she will merely varnish them to a glossy finish. She prefers her art like this, but when she works with clams or oyster shells which are dull and grey, she enlivens them using bright tones of acrylic paint.

On occasion, Baksankaya knows what she wants to create even before the shells come out. Like when she set out to re-create the color and vibrancy she experienced on holiday in Puerto Rico. The result; the toucans. Or when she produced her Statue of Liberty inspired by Peter Max’s iconic images of the same landmark.

Seashell art is nothing new. Artists and crafters across the globe having been working with the medium for hundreds of years. But Baksankaya’s offbeat works bear little resemblance to the seashell decorated jewelry box or quaint tableaus grandmothers are especially fond of. She speaks endearingly of an elderly seashell artist in Brooklyn who fervently disagrees with her avante garde approach. “She says I’m very brave to do what I do,” Baksankaya says with a melodious laugh, “but she always argues with me.”

In her hometown of Baku, Baksankaya practiced as a pediatrician in an altogether different life. When she moved to New York in 1994 she worked with her husband in his computer programming business and her art was little more than a hobby. She had always been fond of seashells, having collected them on the beaches of the Caspian Sea as a child and fashioned them into jewelry and much simpler, cruder versions of the complex artwork she produces today. Her first piece, she recalls excitedly, was of Mickey Mouse made from clam shells and mounted on a simple black board when she was ten years old.

It was not until 2002 that Baksankaya decided to focus solely on her shell art and set up her studio in her cramped kitchen. As for her showroom, well, it’s the rest of her Bay Ridge apartment. “I think there are about 65 paintings on the walls,” she says turning a little pink, “yes, I know, I must think about packing them up or something.” She sold her first work three years ago, to a friend who fell in love with a depiction of roses in oyster shells. “I made $250”, she says, clapping her hands together at the recollection. “I was so happy, because for the first time I felt like a real artist.” Since then she has sold over 40 pieces and exhibited at the Coney Island Art Gallery and at the Brooklyn Public Library. Baksankaya’s work is currently priced between $150 – $2000. The simpler pieces take up to a month to complete, while it took her two and a half months to perfect a $2000 abstract mosaic. And because the inspiration comes hard and fast, she works on up to four collages at any one time, “because I don’t want to lose my ideas,” she says.

And she has plenty of those. Baksankaya’s next project is to shift the copious works she has already produced, hopefully into the hands of generous buyers. She is optimistic about the future, despite the financial dire straits. “I believe tomorrow will always be better than today,” she philosophizes. But she is not waiting for the world to come to her. After the Artexpo, Baksankaya will go to Sanibel Florida in March to participate in an art competition. And her pièce de resistance? A miniature collage of a boy and girl sitting in a car heading to an art competition.