As a lifelong Marylander, Paige Friedeman enjoys the state’s beloved crustaceous delicacy: the Maryland blue crab.
“I prefer them without a lot of Old Bay, which is funny because Marylanders go crazy about their Old Bay,” she said. For the Gaithersburg-based visual artist and former dance teacher, the made-in-Maryland seasoning is a little too spicy.
She laughs: “I used to be the kid who washed the seasoning off.”
While crabs — and the social activity of eating them on a newspaper-covered picnic table — are a delicacy, for Friedeman they became an artistic inspiration. These days, though, she has less desire to eat them, because crabs — at least their shells — occupy a large part of her week as she prepares for an onslaught of holiday ornament collectors. The artist, who works under the moniker Peijisan Art, designs and paints ornaments made from actual crab shells.
And fall has become her peak season as Christmas, Chanukah and Kwanzaa approach, and she spends her days scrubbing the shells, sanitizing them, drying and shellacking them. Then she sketches and paints them.
A versatile artist who works in prints, collage, paint, ink, large-scale murals and sculpture, crab shells are Friedeman’s latest artistic media. And the demand for hand-painted authentic Maryland crab shells caught her by surprise. Friedeman has been painting, folding paper, sketching and collaging since her childhood in Hyattsville. She attended University of Maryland College Park where she majored in studio art with a focus on painting and printmaking.
Asked who inspires her artistically and she eschews naming any famous artists or movements. “I love being an artist and creating,” she said. “I view artmaking as a kind of problem solving: If you’re making something, how can I make it and out of what materials?”
Instead, popular culture captures her imagination, including Japanese anime, television and the movies of Tim Burton. Yet she can as readily paint an abstract canvas as a realistic charcoal sketch of a still life.
“Life is really tricky as a working artist,” she added. “If you rely too much on art history, you end up referencing stuff you really don’t mean to. And then you’re automatically put in a box. I don’t really like that. I want to be inspired to do my own thing.”
One of her recent inspirations — painting and customizing crab shells as ornaments and decorative pieces framed in shadow boxes or mounted atop wooden jewelry boxes — happened on a whim.
“Last fall,” she said, “friends and I went out for crabs because we could only get together outdoors during the pandemic. At the end of dinner, I looked at the shells and thought I could do something with them.” She took home a boxful of about 30 and began experimenting.
Time wasn’t an issue, since so many galleries and dance studios where she had taught and choreographed were closed. Through trial-and-error, Friedeman devised a multi-step process to prepare the shells for painting. “But crabs are expensive. Was I really going to buy and eat so many?”
Instead, the artist put a call out on social media asking restaurants if they had crab shells to give away. “Within an hour,” Friedeman said, “a family restaurant in Frederick, May’s Seafood Restaurant, responded.”
Friedeman picks up shells every few weeks from the Frederick restaurant. Washing and priming them takes a day or more. “First, I wash off whatever gunk is all over them, carefully turning them over. I lay them out and dry them a little bit on the driveway. Then I soak them in a bleach-water solution to make sure they don’t grow any mold or anything from the animal parts.” Then she dumps the soaking solution and rinses the shells again with a spray hose, which gives them a mini power wash before they dry in the sun or overnight. The next day Friedeman applies white primer on the crab shells.
Finally, she’s ready to paint. Each shell is original and has its unique bumps and ridges.
Friedeman draws on her rich artistic background, so you’ll find everything from cartoonish images to fine mini-paintings on her crab shells. For the holidays she’s painting Christmas wreaths and trees, snowmen, Doctor Seuss’s Grinch, even a Chanukah menorah or two.
Marylandia, including the flag, Old Bay logos, University of Maryland Terps mascots, sailboats, black-eyed Susan flowers and scenes from iconic cities, like Frederick, Annapolis, Takoma Park and, of course, Washington, D.C.’s, skyline, are also popular designs for the crab ornaments. Friedeman can customize a crab ornament on advance orders when requested.
“I hand paint them and I can do anything on them,” she said, “because I am a fine artist.”
Even so, “it’s tricky work, because the shells are fragile and break easily,” she noted. But that doesn’t keep Friedeman from taking this artistic endeavor seriously. “I really try to push my artistic side by finding what best fits on the shape of the crab shell. That’s a fun challenge.”
Learn more about Friedeman and Peijisan Art and visit her online shop at: peijisanart.com.