Shadows and Hermit Crabs

In the early seventies, Bill Barrell spent three winters in St Barths in the French West Indies. While there, nature showed him a different way of  seeing and creating art.

Shadow Play #5
Shadow Play #5, photograph, chalk, 1971

….  The idea of going to the Caribbean all came about one summer while having dinner with my friend, Michael Zimmer. He was telling me of how he and his wife Emily had gone to St. Marten for their honeymoon. While there, they had taken a side trip to St. Barths and saw an acre of land for sale on the Bay de St Jean. They bought it. Michael, an architect, had thought maybe of building a house there. He said it was beautiful.

I suggested to him that seeing as neither one of us was locked into any work situation we should do like the birds do and migrate there in the winter. As we both had our summer houses in Maine, it would be the perfect set up.

So.. we plotted and planned for that winter.  Since Michael’s son’s nanny was a certified teacher, we would arm her with teaching materials and take the children too. We studied the Whole Earth Catalogue and planning to sustain ourselves of the earth, we loaded up with seeds.

The locals named the place for us. Le Camp.

I tried painting while living at Le Camp. It did not work. Sailing, swimming, reading and lolling around in the hammock was such a pleasure that painting was saved for Maine. There was always a creative feeling gnawing away at me. When I came by a camera, I decided to try my hand at photography.

Soon my eye turned to the hermit crabs who were living with us. They were helpful little buggers. After dinner, we would put our plates on the ground next to our kitchen. In the night, one could hear them clanking on the plates licking them clean.  (In the morning, of course, we would take the plates down to the sea and rinse them.)

Those little creatures would also move into larger abandoned shells. So I would look for abandoned shells, paint them and place them next to the plates.  So the crabs were often seen sporting new freshly painted houses. It was their thrift shop.

I did a drawing with the crabs. I blocked off about a four by six area in the sand. I dusted the area to make it black, then I rounded up a dozen hermit crabs and released them into the area. They wandered around trailing beautiful lines in the black sand. In the evening, I would sit with a glass of wine and enjoy the art work done while I had been off sailing or swimming.

On my return to Maine in the spring, I would stop in New York City for some cultural input. On one of those stops, I took this photo on the roof of a loft on Mulberry Street. While watching those crabs in St Barths, I had become interested in contrasts so the sharp contrast between the sun and black tar roof caught my eye. It had rained the night before and there was a puddle. The sun was drying it out so I set up a series of ten shots with a half hour between shots.  Every half hour I would line the puddle in white chalk. It made for some beautiful uncontrolled shapes. 

I enjoyed working from nature and learned much from it through the lens of a camera….

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