Williston Fish House Mosaic Taking Shape

As a cooling breeze from Core Sound flows over her, mosaic artist LaNelle Davis carefully places one of thousands of colorful shards that will eventually complete the mosaic she is creating on the wall of former Elmer’s Clam House in Williston. (Helen Kerr Outland photo)

Like so many other places, some of the heritage of Down East had slipped away with time. However, thanks to the efforts of many that heritage is being revived through hard work, historical research and art.

Mosaic artist LaNelle Davis, known statewide for her intricate work, said she is honored to be a part of that revival as she continues work on a mosaic spanning the side of a historic fish house in Williston.  Davis said it is not only a work of art – it brings back many beautiful memories of her own childhood.

Davis said her father, an avid fisherman, bought a summer house in Beaufort in 1963.

“I was nine years old,” she said. “I would travel Down East with my dad and he’d stop at every fish house on the way. I can recall the sounds, the smells, people talking and most of all the women who were working in the fish houses. They’d be sitting at these slanted tables, hands flying as they shelled out oysters, clams or headed shrimp. They never looked down at their skilled hands as they talked among themselves.”

An undated photo of three fish house workers was the inspiration for the mosaic she is creating on the outside wall of Willis Brothers Seafood, affectionately known as Elmer’s Clam House.

A bright and energetic woman, Ms. Davis said she “feels” the Down East of yesterday as she places each piece into the mosaic. She uses several media to create the intricate piece – shards of glass, plates, windows, mirrors and stoneware.

Many pieces were contributed by the families of people who once worked at the clam house.

“Each piece holds its own history and memories of those who worked so hard to make a living for their families. Many still do,” she said.

A close-up of the mosaic reveals some of the items donated by Down East residents, including a piece gilded with “North Carolina Community Foundation.” (Taylor McCune photo)

“It was, and still is, backbreaking work. Work that left weathered faces and scars on their hands from the sharp edges of shells. Just as we stand here on this parking lot talking, we are standing on some of the shells that passed across those slanted tables over the years.”

Having retired after 30 years with Durham County Department of Social Services, two years ago Davis moved into the house in Beaufort that her father had bought.

As she climbed the six-foot ladder to the platform from which she was working she said, “I love being here. You know, you reach a point where you realize there is more of your lifeline behind you than there is ahead of you, so, you have to decide what is really important. Who do you want around you and where do you want to be? I want to be in a place where people wave at each other. I find that Down East.”

Davis began her journey in mosaic art about 20 years ago, thanks to a friendship cultivated with renowned mosaic artist Virginia Bullman. Together, the pair have created not only mosaic walls, but mosaic sculptures. When not creating mosaic art, Davis also enjoys performing bluegrass music as part of a piedmont-area band.