Beachcomber Art: Turning Shells Into A Successful Business

Debbie Brookes’ art takes mundane objects like lamps, chandeliers, unwanted sailfish once stuffed by taxidermists, odds and ends decorators might crave, and creates art using seashells.
Beachcomber Art: Turning Shells Into A Successful Business
Debbie Brookes inside Beachcomber with her works of art. (Photography by Myriam Moran copyright 2013)

The City of Boynton Beach, on Florida’s Atlantic coast, has grown so rapidly that shopping malls and large chain stores have shadowed the original downtown. There are good restaurants and interesting boutiques in the old downtown area. The City has cleverly enabled plenty of free parking. Those wishing to browse, walk around the municipal marina or amble through the mangroves and beautiful walkways to view birds and wildlife on the Intracoastal Waterway can take their ease without feeding parking meters.

Debbie Brookes is originally from Quakertown, Pennsylvania. “I’m the second oldest of seven children. My Dad is one of fourteen children and my Mom one of twelve.” Her bright blue eyes twinkled with enthusiasm inside her shop at 212 South Federal Highway as she described her life, her art and her dedication to helping other artists with an initiative she calls ‘My starving artists program.’

The store is very cool. An old rowboat sits in front full of shells. “Lots of people bring me shells,” Debbie said. A woman dropped off two boxes of shells that had been lying around her parent’s home without purpose. “I go through them. Those I can use in my art I put aside the others I put out in the rowboat.”

The rowboat is getting kind of full as is Beachcomber Art. Original painted murals outside the store beckon discovery. Anyone driving along Federal Highway is caught up with curiosity. What can be inside this most interesting shop? For those that love the ocean and the beach, people interested in maritime themes and coastal life, Beachcomber Art is a must.

Debbie’s story of success wasn’t immediate. She ran away from home when she was seventeen. Life was difficult for her and her family. They lived in a school bus without running water. She went to night school, studied hairdressing and opened her own beauty salon in Coopersburg, PA when she was twenty. From that point on, Debbie’s life was straightforward, “I cut hair for twenty-five years. I have two married daughters, now 35 and 36. I was also a florist. I took night classes in art and sculpting. We left Pennsylvania when our girls went to college.”

Debbie and her husband Ed moved to Sarasota where she took sculpting classes at the Ringling School of Design. Her husband, an executive for an outdoor furniture company, got transferred to Laguna Beach, California. “When he retired, almost eleven years ago, we moved to Ocean Ridge. I'd walk the beaches. There was so much dredging in Palm Beach County I started picking up sea shells. That’s how it started.”

Debbie’s art takes mundane objects like lamps, chandeliers, unwanted sailfish once stuffed by taxidermists, odds and ends decorators might crave, and creates art using seashells. A round oyster shell coffee table catches the eye. Next to it is a large wood framed mirror. The antique wood required many hours of sanding and preparation then having a special mirror cut for it and finally the application of shells and bits of coral found on the beach.

Debbie has created everything from an eighteen-foot bar to a water garden sculpture. She started making sea shell boxes and flower pots for her garden club. Her unique designs quickly caught the eye of decorators in Palm Beach. “You can’t have a business in your home in Ocean Ridge so I opened up a studio two doors north of this location five years ago. I needed more space so moved here three years ago,” she said.

Of her art, Debbie says, “It’s spastic. It depends on the day. I call this my happy place. I thank God, I thank my angels, I thank my fairies, I thank my husband Ed every day. My creativity depends on what I feel like doing. It depends on the supplies I have. If I had to plan something I couldn’t do it. It’s fun. If it stops being fun, I wouldn’t do it. This is my life, I’m happy here.” She swept her arms around the crowded shop. There was art everywhere. No one place could the eye rest without wanting to discover more.

Debbie says that she has always dealt with the public from the time of her first hairdressing business and has always worked for herself. “The best part is meeting so many different people. They have interesting things to add to life. I’ve made so many friends. All of the entertainers that came to play music during my starving artists program were friends that volunteered their time.”

When asked which was her favorite piece, Debbie went to a larger than life mermaid bedecked with an almost magical array of shells and bits of coral found washed up on the beach. A small, concealed box pulled out of the mermaid’s belly that could contain an owner’s special secrets.

When asked what she liked to do apart from her art, Debbie replied, “I love flower arranging and gardening.” She quickly added, “But I don’t have a lot of time. I’m here six days a week. Sundays is cleaning.” Her two standard French poodle puppies demand their share of attention as well. Their happy personalities share Debbie and Ed’s lives. They usually come to work with her and play behind the studio area.

Take time to stroll downtown Boynton Beach. Discover the many boutiques and shops. Leave time to enjoy Beachcomber Art and talk with Debbie. Every third Thursday of the month she plans a ‘Starving Artist’ evening from 5 to 8 PM. It is her way of giving back to the community and artists that wish to exhibit their work in her parking area. What the artists make is their own money. Debbie supplies the food and libations, the music and fun. The artists bring their talents, guests bring their enthusiasm for sharing the wonderful world of art in this happy place.

For more information call Beachcomber Art at 561 315 5717 or visit them at 212 S. Federal Highway, Boynton Beach, FL 33435.