Eastern Shore artist David Janni finds a thriving new career among forgotten grains of sand
There is a woman on the Eastern Shore who owns a sculpture of a pelican, which she’s named Happy. When asked why she choose that name, she replied, “Because every time I walk past it, I smile.”
Flashback to some years earlier, when David Janni was walking on the beach one day and happened upon an oyster shell in the sand. Where many would have viewed it as something to sidestep, the retired construction executive with a background in mechanical engineering instead saw an opportunity. “The shell resembled the webbed foot of a bird,” explained Janni, “and I’d said to myself, I think I can do something with that.”
Five years later, Janni finds himself with a new passion and a gainful second career. He is now a very in-demand oyster-shell sculptor (you read correctly) who can’t hang on to anything he creates for very long. On the same October afternoon we visited with the Eastern Shore artist, he’d just completed his 100th sculpture — all of which have been sold to patrons awaiting them as eagerly as a hatchling does a worm from its mother.
To create these hot properties, Janni begins by collecting oyster shells of all stripes (though not Bay oyster shells, as Janni says they are too thick to work with easily). He then meticulously, painstakingly grinds them into typically teardrop-shaped pieces he can use to form the bodies of the subjects, which consist mostly of waterfowl and sea life, including seagulls, blue herons, white egrets, eagles, seahorses, turtles, blowfish and, of course, pelicans. He then hand-carves and paints the beaks and toes from wood, using steel for the legs (except for pelicans’ legs, which are also made from wood) and shark eye (a snail-like gastropod) for the eyes.
Most sculptures take between one and two weeks to make, depending on the size, which varies from inches to several feet in length or height. His work has been universally well received. In addition to a first-place finish at a 2015 competition sponsored by the Art League of Ocean City, he has an annual exhibit at Arts Alive in OC and is on year-round display at Huckleberry Fine Arts in Rockville and at Red Queen Gallery in Onancock. Though each sculpture is individually priced, most run three to four figures — which is conspicuously fine with the regional art-buying public, who continue to clamor for his latest creations.
Janni remains philosophical about his post-career success as an artist, steadfastly refusing to succumb to the cynicism that commercial success in the art world often engenders. “The work I create and the response I’ve received not only gives me pleasure, obviously, it actually humbles me,” shared Janni, who maintains a studio in his beach-cottage residence in Chance, Md., which he shares with his wife of 33 years, Eve. “The idea that I can take something made of a raw material that most people are inclined to discard and use it to make something of beauty that people not only want to keep but are even willing to pay for is an honor and a privilege I can’t adequately describe. That I can do this using only my hands, imagination and creativity brings me a joy the likes of which I’ve never known before.”
Those interested in learning more about David Janni’s artistic works may contact him by email, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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