Tom Matarazzo, who paints crab shells, holds his best seller,… (Jed Kirschbaum, Baltimore…)
You knew they were tasty. But did you know crabs were art?
At least they are in the hands of a few area painters. They take those hard, pointy, colorful outer shells, the ones that usually get rolled up in a newspaper and thrown away when the crab feast is over, and turn them into decorative keepsakes.
"I really don't know what the draw is," concedes Dorothy Oliver, who paints on hollowed-out crustaceans from her home in Huntingtown in Calvert County. "It's a unique little item. I guess people just like Maryland crabs; they like their Maryland blue crabs."
Using equal parts patience, skill and ingenuity, these painters turn the odd-shaped shells, pointy ends and all, into Santa Clauses and Baltimore skylines, Picassos and van Goghs, Orioles logos and pet portraits. Tom Matarazzo, who paints and sells at his Hampden shop, Razzo, once painted a picture of a customer's black Labrador on a crab shell, complete with a Darth Vader mask.
"That's probably the weirdest one I've ever done," says Matarazzo, a retired city police officer who specializes in custom orders. You name it, he'll paint it on a crab shell. While the canine Darth Vader may have been his oddest commission, the logo of the state medical examiner's office runs a close second.
Only in Maryland. And that, in fact, is one reason for their popularity. For the visitor who wants to take a Maryland memory home, or residents looking for something to demonstrate their pride in the Free State, a painted crab shell is the obvious answer. Thank you, Chesapeake Bay.
"Crabs and Maryland are synonymous," says Jeff Bridner of Westminster. He and his wife, Patty, sell plenty of painted crab shells through their themarylandstore.com website. "Most people know Maryland for crabs; most people that come to Maryland on vacation are certainly going to try crabs."
In other words, if nothing else, taking a painted crab shell home as a souvenir should remind visitors to Maryland of the best meal they've ever eaten.
"People love the crab shells," writes Rebecca Ebert, who paints crab shells and sells them — at $6 a pop — from her website, designsbynoodle.com. "It's traditional Baltimore."
Nobody understands that better than Matarazzo, whose window display on The Avenue in Hampden includes about 100 painted crabs, emblazoned with everything from pink flamingos and hons (complete with black plastic glasses) to the Oriole bird and Ravens logo. He's even got some that don't have an obvious Baltimore connection at all, like Yoda, the Rolling Stones' tongue logo and a reproduction of Edvard Munch's famous painting "The Scream."
"It all started years ago, when I had a customer come in and he brought a couple dozen crab shells," says Matarazzo. "'Hey, we had crabs last week; you think you could paint these up?'"
From that small conversation, a cottage industry developed. Matarazzo paints crab shells pretty much all year, charging from $12 to $20 for the finished product, depending on the crab's size and the painting's intricacy. On a recent afternoon, he was painting a dozen shells in one sitting, half with a lighthouse scene ("They're one of my biggest sellers"), half with a Maryland flag.
Most of his sales, not surprisingly, come during the Christmas holidays, when he stays open seven days a week to take advantage of the crowds that come to Hampden for its famously gaudy light displays. Painted crab shells, he notes, make for a great Christmas tree ornament.
"I've heard from some customers that they have whole Christmas trees with just my stuff on them," Matarazzo says.
At first glance, blue crab shells may not look like the easiest painting surface Mother Nature ever devised, what with the edges, the curved surface and the occasional bump or blemish. But apparently, a crab shell makes for a wonderful canvas.
"There's actually a face outline on each crab shell," says Bonnie Hood, who specializes in putting Santa Claus faces on her crabs, which are sold through themarylandstore.com. "You have the nose, and it has cheekbones on it."
Finding the raw materials is a pleasure; just have a crab feast — or get yourself invited to one — and you're set for weeks.
"I'm probably the only person who will go and say, 'Can I clean up your crab feast?'" says Hood.
The real work comes in cleaning the shell and getting it ready for the paint. Not only does it have to be scrubbed thoroughly, but it has to be soaked in something for a while — usually bleach — to get the smell out.
"The painting process is maybe half an hour," says Hood, who works full time as an administrator at the Carroll County Farm Museum in Westminster. "Your real time is in cleaning them and getting them to that point. I scrape it really good and I try to wash it with a little bit of detergent. Then, after I feel good about that, I put it on the stove, in a pot of water with some bleach, and I literally boil it — just enough to get it going a little bit.
"I leave it sit for a little while," she says. "You don't want to let it sit too long; you're going to make the shell real brittle. Then, once they're out of the pot, I let them air dry. Then I start the process of painting."
Naturally, not all artists do their own prep, so busy are they with the creative process. Matarazzo's wife is his main help.
"She scrapes them out with a paring knife, then scrubs them with a Brillo pad. She gets them sparkling clean. …She does the work," he says with a laugh, "I get the glory."