The Search for Hidden Beauty: Debbie Brady's Oyster Art
Many of us know that an oyster is more than just an appetizer on half shell. Most of us also understand an oyster’s role as a keystone species in nature and its profound effect on our water quality and biodiversity. Beyond their tangible ocean powers, these creatures spark our imaginations. There is something about oysters - their colors, shape and lifestyle that can capture our sea-loving hearts through poetry, paint, sculpture, photography, jewelry and more.
I found Debbie’s art showcased on social media, and she was a part of my artist series I compiled earlier this year. Her perspective was something I had not seen in any other oyster-inspired artist. Without giving too much away from her own story, Debbie’s photography has taught me that there is another beautiful, intrinsic part of our world when we take the time to look a little more closely.
Virginia: May you share with us where you are from and how you took interest in photography? How did your personal experiences lead you to where you are today?
Debbie: I was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada and grew up in the city’s historic Hydrostone district. In 1972 I received a scholarship to attend Dalhousie University’s Bachelor of Nursing 4-year program. Although I loved science and was passing with flying colours I just finished my third year when I realized that nursing wasn’t the career for me. I wanted to switch gears and apply to the fine arts program. However, 3/4 of a degree has no resume value. Instead of following my passion I remained practical and finished my Nursing Degree. Shortly afterwards I moved with my husband (yes I married my grade 10 sweetheart during second year) to the rural village Tyne Valley located on the Canadian Oyster Coast of Prince Edward Island.
Only working as a nurse for two years I happily gave it up in 1978 to become a stay-at-home mom to the first of four sons. As it turned out my youngest son became severely ill as an infant so the nursing skills I could provide during that extended two-year period was a blessing!
While raising our family I enjoyed trying a variety of creative outlets such as quilting, macrame, soft sculpture and woodworking. By 1997 our youngest was settled in Junior High so I jumped at the opportunity to formally pursue visual arts by attending Holland College. It was a daily 3 hour round trip. My husband didn’t think I’d be able to handle accepting the lower standard of housekeeping he’d keep. He soon learned that I was willing to step past our teenagers to promptly leave for class each morning and do homework every evening and weekend.
I now have over 20 years experience as a graphic designer at my home-based business Graphically Speaking. Having become accomplished at directing many photo shoots for print and online projects I worked to develop my skills using a DSLR camera.
Once I began looking through a camera lens, especially a macro one, I’ve been continually intrigued by the never ending possibilities available to pursue. There is always something new to learn and experiment with. I love taking photos and have worked hard to become a skilled photographer by reading, watching tutorials, taking workshops and a whole lot of practice! Not every photo has been a keeper but that only makes me glad that I am able to use a digital camera. I don’t think I would have had the patience to use film. Photography makes me lose all track of time! If that means time stands still when I have a camera in my hands I hope it translates into a long life yet to live!
Virginia: Why oyster shells?
Debbie: I bought my first SLR in 2009. Back then there wasn’t access to all the online instruction now available. It sat in the box for awhile before I attempted taking photos simply using the auto setting. I have always been a ‘detail’ person so the thought of not ‘completely’ knowing how this thing worked terrified me.
In 2012 I remember being at the camera store when I bought my macro lens. The agent asked what focal length I wanted. Well at that point I didn’t really know how to fully use my new camera. I just knew I was going to want to photograph things up close. . . I chose the lens I could afford: 100mm Canon Macro (which wasn’t cheap by any means). I had read a lot of books but I really wasn’t grasping how to use the camera unless it was on the auto setting. My brain’s lightbulb finally lit up when I took a few photography classes in 2013. I became comfortable experimenting with different subjects and techniques but inevitably gravitated to the tiniest of things. And what I found totally captivated me. One of those things was an oyster shell.
My dad grew up on Cape Sable Island, a small fishing community in the most southern tip of Nova Scotia. Because he was one of ten children I loved visiting there every summer surrounded by cousins and the Atlantic Ocean. I relished the salty air and being near the water. I live on an Island but in the middle of farmland. My ‘happy place’ is walking along the shore.
Bringing home beach treasures comes naturally. In 2016 I was using my macro lens to check out some of my treasure when I saw what was hidden from casual view in an oyster shell. I was totally impressed, but abstracts textures don’t often garner much attention during a slideshow. It took me three years of collecting, cataloging, photographing and thinking before I developed the plan to launch an “Oyster Art” collection.
Virginia: May you share what you hope the audience will appreciate in your oyster art?
Debbie: No other artistic endeavour has engaged me so thoroughly as photography. Detailed storytelling has become my photographic passion. I’m repeatedly drawn to using macro & close-up photography to creatively tell stories with my camera. I seek out things easily overlooked. As it turns out, the coloured cervices in a shell are one of those easily and often overlooked things that nature has so fantastically created. They provide in miniature a simulated reminder of nature’s creations on a grander scale. When people look at my Oyster Art they often comment that it looks like a constellation or galaxy. Others say it reminds them of a satellite view of the earth. As I hear these comments I cannot help think that the smallest of things represented in an oyster shell brings everything full circle in our understanding of the largest of things in nature. What an amazing thing to appreciate and what a great story Oyster Art has to tell—each one being unravelled (and created) by the person looking at it.
I like hearing that people who own my artwork enjoy having visitors trying to guess what is depicted before they’re told it’s a close-up of an oyster shell. Each art piece is accompanied by a 4”x 6” card giving the location the shell was found, a perspective photo of the entire shell with the area photographed in the artwork outlined by a red rectangle. Oyster Art is a conversation piece.
My pictures are testimonies of the character and mood of subjects as I see them. I portray them as they speak to me and have the final piece fulfill my vision. When the image is able to touch the viewer in the same way — then — I can hardly wait to head out with my gear to discover the next one. Photography energizes me with its infinite number of subjects and technical challenges. I don’t foresee an end to the exciting stories I can capture in all their glorious detail!
Virginia: What is the most challenging part of your art process?
Debbie: The most challenging part of the process is actually raising awareness for these unique one-of-a-kind pieces of modern art. Once people see it and realize what they are looking at there is inevitably an “Oh wow!” reaction. I am marketing Oyster Art as modern abstract art. I have both a Unlimited Edition as well as a large format Limited Edition (maximum 10 prints of a given image). As an emerging artist, and one without a fine arts degree, as well as using photography as a medium, there are limited opportunities to display in commercial galleries . . . but I’ve not given up hope.
There are many oyster festivals happening that may provide some media exposure. I’d also like to reach out to the high end interior design community who work with art collectors, as well as the upscale oyster bars. Imagine an original piece of oyster art printed under the tempered glass of a bistro table or inlaid in a counter top!
Virginia: Where can we find your work?
Debbie: I am fortunate to have in my first year three pieces of Oyster Art on display, and of course for sale, at The Dunes Art Galley in Brackley, PE. My website www.oysterart.ca has my portfolio of work, pricing and directions to place an order. After my exhibit at Valley Pearl Oysters on July 31, I will have a home gallery
Virginia: What do you think about the oyster industry itself? Has this focus opened up any doors for you that you did, or did not expect?
As mentioned I live in Tyne Valley, PE located on the Canadian Oyster Coast. It’s home of the Oyster Festival and Canadian Oyster Shucking Championship. The world renowned Malpeque oysters are plentiful here and I’m learning everyday just how unique oysters are based on the growing location and how they are raised. Instagram has introduced me to many oyster lovers around the world. Unfortunately I am allergic to shellfish so I am limited to appreciating their beauty. I can only smile when I see a local grower shuck open a fresh oyster, slurp it back and say with a smile “That’s a meal right there!”
Now when I travel, locally or abroad, I check out the oyster establishments hoping to collect a few spent shells whenever possible! A producer, knowing what I do, brought me a few oyster unique shells from BC. I’m hoping more of this will happen in time. Unless of course I can do the traveling!
Thank you so much, Debbie, for sharing your beautiful talent with us! In addition to her website, you can follow Debbie’s work on Instagram at @dbradyphotoart