Gifts from the Sea

By Jane Bartnett

Prized and collected by coastal people for thousands of years, seashells are a gift from the sea.

Followers of Feng Shui believe that they bring happiness and good luck. For the award-winning Sarasota artist Susan McNichol who has worked in art forms as diverse as woodwork, painting, jewelry, hairdressing, and now seashell design, the unique shapes and colors of shells are her inspiration and joy. “Seashells and mermaids have always been a favorite of mine,” said the Ontario, Canada native who made Sarasota her home nearly 20 years ago.

Artist Susan McNichol with her Mermaid Seashell Windchime

One day about 10 years ago, when her husband David Cerniglia, a stone mason, was creating a stone oil lamp for a client, McNichol had an idea. She suggested that they design oil lamps using beautiful shells as the container for the oil. Together, the couple began to experiment with design and function. “We got right on it,” she recalled, noting that “after months of testing and some time spent on trial and error, we came up with the right combination of shells and stone.” They soon went on to patent their break-through design called Seashell Oil Lamps. Each lamp features a wick that never burns away and an exquisite shell that serves as the vessel for the oil that houses the wick and unobtrusive casing that reflects the flickering light. Each McNichol Seashell Oil Lamp is slightly different. The shells that she uses in her work are imported from all over the world and sourced from reputable vendors. The Jade Turbo shell is her favorite. Originating from the Indian Ocean, it reflects the blue-green colors of the ocean. She also favors the Striped Fox conch shell, found in the waters off the coast of Southeast Africa and the Western Pacific Ocean. When creating her larger pieces, McNichol often selects the dramatic pink and peach colored Triton shell, imported from the Caribbean and named for a mythological Greek god of the sea. She finishes her pieces by adorning the lamps with colored sea glass, smaller shells and other natural wonders of nature that frame the larger shell. “I test every shell before incorporating it into a Seashell Oil Lamp design,” she advised. Susan McNichol’s work is featured on her website: www.mcstoneworks.net and on the MC Stoneworks Facebook page.

Over the years, word of the uniquely beautiful Seashell Oil Lamps grew as McNichol and Cerniglia sold their creations at coastal shows and fairs all around Florida. “People from all around the world have bought our lamps,” McNichol said with pride. “Recently,” she said, “a couple from Ireland became customers.” Although Cerniglia passed away in 2018, McNichol is continuing to carry on the couple’s successful business. In early 2020, her design won first place at the Sarasota Seashell Show in the Professional Lamp Category. A featured artist at the new Coastal Flow Ocean Inspired Design & Decor store at 7216 South Tamiami Trail, McNichol’s Seashell Oil Lamps are available in a range of sizes and prices. Her small Seashell Oil Lamps begin at $39.00. Additional larger Seashell Lamps are sold for $59.99, $89.99, and $99.99. Her largest pieces begin at $299.00. McNichol told the Siesta Sand that the lamps can burn paraffin and citronella.

Fretwork Woodworking Designs

McNichol is also a master of fretwork, an intricate ornamental wood design done with a woodworking fret saw that originated more than 3,000 years ago in ancient Egypt for furniture inlays. Many of her intricate, whimsical fretwork pieces can be found alongside her Seashell Oil Lamps at the Coastal Flow store. A mermaid wind chime, that retails for $79, is “a customer favorite,” according to Jesse Gill, co-owner of the Coastal Flow shop. McNichol’s other decorative fretwork pieces that include wine glass holders and stand-alone wood sculptures, range in price from $40 – $150.

A Susan McNichol Seashell Oil Lamp design.

“My grandfather taught me how to use a scroll saw as a teenager in the 60s,” she said. That led her to win the title of Grand Champion at the Indiana State Fair. “Later on, I discovered that fretwork is more intricate than just scroll sawing,” said the artist. To prepare her intricate creations, McNichol sketches many of her designs on paper, often featuring mermaids and seashells in her designs. “They’ve always been a favorite. I give the mermaids different hair styles and really have fun with them,” she said with a laugh.