Emerson’s is an incredibly time-consuming craft, often taking more than 75
hours for a single piece.
“In the beginning I paid a carpenter to do the actual cutting of my wood frame
designs,” he said. “I would subsequently ‘finish’ the piece. I originally knew nothing
of gilding nor of cutting mirrors, glass and metals. I had painted with oils and
acrylics but knew little about the chemistry of varnishes, of the coloring effects
of layering paints, shellacs, patinas; of reactions to humidity in different climates.
Relying on my craftsman’s network, my education in these skills was a lengthy,
Emerson’s furniture designs started with a glass-topped coffee table in their
Florence house. He started when Barbara flew back to Pennsylvania for a few
weeks. When she returned she found his workshop a mess of glass, wood
shavings, paper strips and wooden pegs, but between two couches in the house’s
salato sat a red, glass-topped coffee table crafted in the traditional Florentine
way – complete with gilded, decorative paper, silk tassels and wooden pegs (no
While he didn’t purposely hide his work, it took years of refining his art before
he openly shared with family and friends the scope of what he was doing. Their
response was enthusiastic but did lead him to that typical artist’s conundrum of
having to think about parting with some of his creations.
“Putting a price on my work felt somehow demeaning,” he said with a
With the threat that her house might be stacked to the ceilings with his
work, Barbara again gave impetus by encouraging at least some sales.
There is a paradox between Emerson’s work in Florence and his work
in Boca Grande.
“To me, even though my artistic career began in Florence my current
pieces are distinctly from Boca Grande,” he said. “One of the ironies in
my work is that in Florence, the sea life I work with is artificial but made
to resemble real sea life. The seashells I use in Florence are usually classic
scallops and conchs carved in wood and then made to look real. In Boca
Grande, it is the reverse. I use many of the same shell types here but they
are real shells, not carved wood. I start with real sea life then use gilt, paints
and varnishes to convert it to resemble the artificial. I can use upwards of