The shell belonged to a 50-pound clam, big enough to provide Emilio Garcia breakfast, lunch and dinner.
Which really wasn’t much when considering the bigger picture.
“These clams can grow to 500 pounds, so this one is really a baby,” Garcia says.
Still, the 50-pounder is enough to give visitors pause when visiting the exhibit, “Herman Mhire-Emilio Garcia: The Art & Science of Shells,” at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum in Baton Rouge. The exhibit runs through Wednesday, Sept. 24.
Garcia is the science part of the equation — a malacologist, or an expert in the study of mollusks. He 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.
And it is from this collection that Mhire discovered an exotic artistic adventure in his hometown of Lafayette, where he once was director and chief curator of the University Art Museum.
Mhire also is a painter who started delving into photography after retirement. His work represents the art part of the show, 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. No. He was not a member of the science faculty; 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.”
Which brings up the inevitable question of Garcia’s plans for these shells. At least one 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.”
For now, the museum exhibit is his focus.
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 showed his original shell photos to critics at a national photography convention. They liked what they saw.
“But they suggested that I do more with the shells,” Mhire says. “They said I might consider using Photoshop to manipulate the shells. It was something I’d wanted to do, but it was almost as if I needed their permission to do this.”
Mhire went home and started playing with the shells’ natural design, enlarging them to highlight their individual characteristics and details, eventually creating faces.
“I’m influenced by African masks, so this came naturally to me,” he says.
So, visitors will see the original photo of each shell alongside those of the creatures that emerged from Mhire’s imagination.
But that’s not all. Mhire 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 painting became more than just a carbon copy of the photograph. Mhire’s brush strokes represent his interpretation of the shell, the beauty as he sees it.
The tiger-striped shrimp shell that inspired his journey is prominently displayed at the beginning of the show. Garcia’s shells are found in the small Soupcon Gallery, the display cases divided into chronological and species categories of sorts.
And Mhire’s right. Here’s where visitors can see the shells used in his photographs. And more — much more.
For Garcia has shared a varied sample of his collection, many of which will not be found in Mhire’s photos, such as the multi-colored shells of land mollusks and the ominous shells of spiny oysters.
And then the biggest of all in this gallery, the 50-pound clam shell. It dominates one of the display cases.
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.