The shell belonged to a 50-pound clam, big enough to provide Emilio Garcia breakfast, lunch and dinner. But it wasn’t really that big, considering it was a clam.
“These clams can grow to 500 pounds, so this one is really a baby,” Garcia, a malagologist, says.
Malagologists study mollusks. Garcia is considered one of the world’s best in his field, having collected more than 100,000 specimens representing 7,000 species of mollusk shells from all parts of the globe.
The 50-pounder is still big enough to give visitors pause when visiting the Louisiana Art & Science Museum’s exhibit, “Herman Mhire — Emilio Garcia: The Art & Science of Shells,” which runs through Wednesday, Sept. 24. Garcia brings the science.
The art comes from Mhire, once the director and chief curator of the University Art Museum in Lafayette, and a painter who started delving into photography after retirement.
His part of the show is a collection of photographs and large paintings of selected shells form Garcia’s collection.
Garcia also lives in Lafayette, where he taught Latin American literature at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette. Malacology is a hobby he began at age 2 in his native Cuba.
“My parents brought me to the Bay of Pigs, and I started picking up shells,” Garcia says.
Garcia left his childhood shell collection behind when he moved to Lafayette in 1965. So, he started a new collection, his self-taught expertise earning him spots in international scientific research expeditions.
Garcia has since retired from the university, but he’s still traveling with scientists, and he regularly shares his knowledge with both academic and collectors groups. The Louisiana Art & Science Museum is presenting his collection in a different way.
“The shells from Emilio’s collection in this show are the actual shells I used in my photographs,” Mhire says.
Mhire’s own shell adventure began with a tiger-striped snail shell found in a Florida souvenir shop.
“I loved the markings,” Mhire says. “I loved its natural beauty, so I bought it. I was a painter, not a photographer. But I started experimenting with photography, and I liked what was happening with the shell.”
Mhire bought a camera for his project but quickly discovered that he was getting better results from his iPhone 4S. Still, one shell wasn’t enough. A friend told Mhire about Garcia, who readily shared his collection.
“Emilio’s collection is amazing,” Mhire says. “He has everything categorized and numbered. They’re on shelves and in drawers, where everything is in order.”
At least one of Garcia’s collection of species will go to the Smithsonian Institute.
“But they have to make sure this is something they want and accept it first,” Garcia says. “I would like to donate other parts of the collection to museums and collections that are interested in the different species.”
This is the first time his shells have been presented in an artful way, and Mhire’s perspective doesn’t concentrate only on the shell’s natural state.
Mhire began playing with the shells’ natural design, enlarging them to highlight their individual characteristics and details, eventually creating faces and sea creatures.
He also had wall-sized photos made of some of the shells, which inspired him to return to his original medium — painting.
“The colors in the larger photographs weren’t as rich as I wanted them to be,” he says. “So, I decided to experiment with one of them and paint over it.”
The tiger-striped shrimp shell that inspired his journey also takes its place in a prominent display case at the beginning of this show. Garcia’s shells are found in the small Soupcon Gallery, the display cases divided into chronological and species categories of sorts.
The 50-pound clam shell dominates one of the display cases. It’s joined by multicolored shells of land mollusks and the ominous shells of spiny oysters.
A fisherman gave Garcia the clam while on a collecting trip.
“I can say that this is the only shell in a museum exhibit whose contents the collector ate before showing it,” Garcia says.