A Good Shadowbox Makes That Third-Place Ribbon Worth It

Patti Bell curates the flotsam and jetsam of memory into richly narrative tableaux. Photo by Rimas Zailskas.

Sailing on the open water has always been a dangerous business. Maritime lore is filled with omens ranging from the monstrous Kraken of Greek mythology and Melville’s vengeful great white whale to Coleridge’s fate-sealing albatross. And then there’s the lesser-known English naval superstition of shadows.

Centuries ago, it was believed that a sailor would suffer ill luck should his shadow touch shore before he set foot upon it. To ward off disaster, sailors would construct a sturdy box to display symbols of their accomplishments such as medals. This symbolic “shadow” was held by shipmates until its owner made it safely ashore, then presented to the sailor in a ceremony.

Asheville framer Patti Bell’s own custom-made shadowboxes aren’t meant for public ritual: instead, she encases deeply personal mementos under glass. “We’re making heirlooms,” says Bell, who works in her gallery at Studio B Custom Framing & Fine Art in Reynolds Village. Items include everything from equestrian-competition ribbons to rare Bedouin baubles and Meerschaum pipes. “It doesn’t matter if I’m framing jewelry or children’s toys — they’re all important because they represent important times in people’s lives,” she says.

Bell has been making shadowboxes for more than 40 years. “It’s definitely a collaborative process, and there’s always a story,” she says. As an artist, she’s focused on scale, color, and balance — but she must also be an empathetic listener. She remembers one woman who brought in the two remaining pieces she had saved from her mother’s silver set. (The client had been obliged to sell the rest.)

But Bell finds making military shadowboxes the most touching — honoring men and women of the U.S. Armed Forces in a close connection to the shadowbox’s earliest intention. “It’s emotional and it’s sad, but you also know you’re helping in a small way,” she says. “That’s a great feeling.”

Studio B Custom Framing & Fine Art, 61 N. Merrimon Ave., #109, Asheville. For details, call 828-225-5200 or visit galleryatstudiob.com.

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