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The former owner of this chandelier probably wouldn’t recognize it now. Lisa Dunnington of Meadow Valley painted it turquoise and then covered it with seashells she’s collected from various trips to her favorite beaches. Photo by Victoria Metcalf

Meadow Valley artist draws from childhood memories for unique creations

She saves seashells from the seashore.

And other things from beaches and tide pools.

With those treasures she creates beautiful, one of a kind furnishings and artwork that draw Lisa Dunnington back to her precious childhood days with her grandfather at Moss Beach.

That beach and those opportunities were favorites with young Lisa. “I grew up in a close-knit family and I was the only girl in like 17 grandkids,” Lisa explained, He would take just her to a beach near Monterey.

And there he would teach her about seashells that washed upon the shore, and the creatures that lived amongst the rocks and pounding waves. It was all about learning in an enjoyable, companionable way.

Now, hundreds of miles from her beloved waves, Lisa slips back to her favored places for  mental visits.

Over the years as her own two daughters, Zoe and Summer arrived, Lisa included them in her adventures.

Later her nieces and nephews and now her own grandchildren get to enjoy the magic of the ever-changing water, the long walks on wave-pounded shores, and the excitement of discovering just what lives in spray-splashed tide pools.

Following her grandfather’s example and keeping his memory alive, Lisa is now the teacher. And together, her students gather shells from the beaches by the bucketful.

It’s not uncommon for Lisa to now load up her van with kids. “I have all my honey spots,” she explained about where they go to look for Lisa’s brand of treasures. She also knows to wait until after it rains and then everything gets washed up on the beach. “There’s better pickins,” she said.

One of Lisa’s nieces, Mariah, who is now an adult, is in a wheelchair and can’t make it to the beach, so Lisa makes sure the beach comes to her. She is always creating something, or giving her shells to make her feel a part of the adventures. Lisa’s specialty are crowns that can include shells and a dried starfish and are usual gifts.

While Lisa has always been fascinated with the beach and scavenging for natural treasurers, it wasn’t until she was involved in a renovation business that her interests would incorporate furnishings.

To assist with her desire to decorate with shells and bits of seaweed she’s dried, Lisa visits yard sales.

Showing a few of her treasures, Lisa indicated the top to a grandfather clock and a metal chandelier resting atop her round wooden dining room table.

The chandelier started out as a stock, gray-colored metal piece. Nothing special to look at, so Lisa chose turquoise  for the base color and then glued shells up and down its arms and body. Matched scallop shells fan out around each light socket and she’s looking for just the right shells to adorn the top.

Lisa didn’t snap up the grandfather clock at a yard sale. Her mother bought it new and then didn’t like it. Lisa removed the clock and case from the top and set to work. After studying the top piece, she added shells in a careful pattern. Indicating the semi-dismantled clock case, Lisa has big plans to turn the interior into a seascape among other ambitious ideas.

While Lisa likes to collect items “as cheap as can be,” she does spend some money. “I have a lot invested in glue and paper maché,” she explained.

Glue is an important component in securing shells to objects. And she uses a variety of different kinds, especially hot glue and jewelry glue. “You learn as you go what goes with what. Honestly, I don’t have a set method. I just play with it as I can and see what works and what doesn’t,” she added both about designs and what type of glue to use with which project.

Lisa also doesn’t spend much on paint. She has a recycling paint shop in the Bay Area she likes to visit. She chooses varieties she likes and then often uses them to mix her own special colors, she explained. This process adds another level of creativity.

Lisa  tends to store her yard sale finds until she finally decides what she might create. She also collects stories from yard sale hosts about different pieces and likes the thought of adding to each item’s history.

“I’ll start thinking about something and it will just appear,” she said about other finds — for instance the $5 chandelier she’s spent hours on.

For Lisa it isn’t just a process of painting something and then adding shells. She can spend time sorting through her shells to find just the right ones. And then there’s the design process that’s important. Nothing is haphazard.

Tucked away, Lisa has an old chest style radio that’s she’s planning to turn into a bar. Although she hasn’t started on this artistic venture, she thinks about it as she works on other things. “Someone told the story about their uncle loving it,” she said about the 1940s radio. Suddenly, when Lisa discovered it for re-purposing, it wasn’t just an old radio, but became a treasure to her.

Lisa’s converted one downstairs room in her Meadow Valley home into her workshop. Boxes and bags of shells of various types, clumps of bright green moss, bits of fabric and much more line the shelves of a wide variety of furnishings.

The deep, deep blue-green walls give the room a restful feel as Lisa settles into her high chair and spends minutes or hours absorbed in one of her creations.

Indicating one of her yard sale finds and then another, Lisa is busy fashioning elaborate homes for the fairies.

The completed one is a rustic two-story cabin using a former dollhouse. Paper maché and brown paint have been fashioned into branches and roots that creep across the roof top and down the sides. Individual woody pinecone scales have been used to outline the two upper windows and some of the roof, almost like tiles are showing.

Dried moss, wild grasses and small flowers add to the woodsy character, and what appears to be a brown egg with the front taken away becomes a cozy hanging basket chair near the front door.

Lisa hasn’t skimped on creativity when it comes to each of the four rooms on the opposite side of the structure. Shells become a bathtub and sink on tiny legs. The floor looks like it’s been designed with tiny brown pebbles.

Between the upstairs bathroom and a plush bedroom, Lisa’s added what appears to be a root in the shape of the back of a woman with many long frail arms that branch out toward the roof.

Downstairs, Lisa’s used a rustic piece of doll furniture as a wall table. On top is a tiny shell and two acorn caps as bowls.

Nearby this fairy house is the second dollhouse Lisa is turning into a castle. The turrets are fashioned from oatmeal boxes and the entire thing is painted an off-white.

Lisa has refinished furniture, homes, dressers, mirrors and other things over her lifetime. In a former home she refinished her daughters’ bathroom to resembled the beach. The walls were sand colored and she used finished pieces of driftwood for the towel bars. Palm trees added a special touch. “We do art to heal our hearts,” she said about not only that project, but others.

Leaving the art studio and the dining room with its table and chairs Lisa refinished adding a shabby chic-like white finish, she makes her way into her living room.

Lisa’s decorating style is hard to pin down. Forget labels — country French, Tuscany, or rustic — Lisa likes color, different shapes and textures, a variety of themes.

The living room walls are painted a deep, rich red. Her sofa, the only piece of furniture that she’s purchased new, is sage; and she enjoys being  surrounded by the things she likes. There are Buddha faces arranged on the wall in one place, a large shell on the mantel, dried flowers hung here and there, nestled end tables in others, even musical instruments add to the décor to the room’s appeal.

And right above the sofa that’s placed in front of the brick fireplace, is one of the large mirrors Lisa has found and made her own. Encrusted around the wide frame are thousands of tiny shells. In the corners are what appear to be mussel shell halves and dried seaweed she’s prepared.

Lisa said she’s created a wide variety of mirrors over the years, but she always seems to end up giving them away.

At last, one of her daughters told her she just had to stop giving away the pieces she’s worked so hard to make. Indicating a large mirror, the daughter said she had searched  the internet and thought Lisa could easily make $2,100 for a mirror, not to mention her other designs.

With that in mind, Lisa is now having a web site designed by one of her daughters. And she’s decided on the name Ophelia Fish, where she will eventually offer the unique things she creates for sale.

When asked if she considered herself creative or an artist, Lisa said, “I’ve never said that about myself. I like to play around artistically.”

Does she think she has patience? “I guess so,” about the projects she has painstakingly arranged, even grinding broken bits of abalone shell to use as filler between some shells. “Doing home reno [renovation] with the girls’ dad, it pushed me into a lot of things,” she said.

One of Lisa’s biggest projects she’s had to share with many others. That’s the Quincy’s Pink Lady on Jackson Street. Lisa is involved in restoring that home and she has lots of plans.

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