Spacious House in the Woods Is a Collector’s Retreat

A glimpse of the common threads that run through disparate artistic objects
Cowrie shell carving is a global phenomenon. Durell Godfrey Photo

   Like a whirlwind tour across the globe, a walk through Mady Schuman’s spacious house, tucked away in the woods of Amagansett, offers a glimpse of the common threads that run through disparate artistic objects.
    “I’ve always traveled a lot,” Ms. Schuman said as she greeted a visitor. Here, as at her Greenwich Village apartment, are extensive and eclectic collections of such things as decorated World War I-era shell casings, which are known as trench art, carved cowrie shells, horn cups, and beaded belts bearing the names of places from Nantucket to Seattle and of notable people. Ms. Schuman said her collecting “just has to do with places I’ve been and things that interest me.”
     “My background is in theater history and performance art, so I got very interested in ritual,” Ms. Schuman said. “Tattooing is ritual in many of these cultures. The images on the trench art, the idea of carving those shells, it’s really tattooing the shells the same way the skin is tattooed.”
    Artillery shell casings decorated by French, British, and American soldiers in France bear inscriptions such as “Allied Expeditionary Forces, Verdun 1917-1919,” and depictions of soldiers, flags, the Statue of Liberty, even an angel following troops into battle.
    “The iconography of the trench art is very similar to sailor flesh art and tattooing,” Ms. Schuman said. “It’s not everybody’s taste, but it’s taking something that’s bellicose and making something beautiful and patriotic.”
    Other areas in the house display curling stones, sets of miniature books, baskets, canes, Maori and other ethnographic tattooing prints, and serpentine stone lighthouses from Cornwall, England.
    Pointing, however, to a collection of cups fashioned from animal horns, Ms. Schuman said, “Those [artillery] shells have been ‘tattooed,’ if you will, and the horn cups have been inked. So there’s a common theme.”
    “They’re from everywhere,” she said of the cups, which fill several shelves. “They were used as shot glasses, whiskey glasses.” A Hungarian spa, the French Alps resort of Chamonix, Iceland, Yellowstone National Park, Geneva, Switzerland, and Killarney, in Ireland’s breathtakingly beautiful County Kerry, are among the places commemorated on them.
    Then there are the carved cowrie shells. In one of the world’s most beautiful and coveted beach communities, Ms. Schuman has assembled a globe-spanning collection of 1,000 or more. Choose one at random and be transported to the Golden Gate International Exposition in 1939, Newport, R.I., Catalina Island, Calif., Orchard Beach in the Bronx, Ormond Beach, Fla., St. Joseph, Mo., or even Australia. The signs of the zodiac, the Liberty Bell, the words “Home, Sweet Home” — complete with sheet music — and Hebrew text around the word “sister” (in English) are among the shells’ messages.
    One cowrie shell, commemorating the 1901 assassination of President McKinley, is placed between others showing the president before he was gunned down at the Pan-American ExExposition in Buffalo. “It was a global phenomenon,” Ms. Schuman said of shell-carving, “which is what I find fascinating about it.”
    Perhaps more closely related to the East End’s beaches  is a whole community of bearded old salts, lined up and ready for Mother Nature’s worst. The cast-iron figures look as if they have taken a beating from gale-force winds, or doors flung with similar force, but one of the smaller figures is also a bottle opener, suitably prepared to quench the fishermen’s thirst.
    As testimony to some of the places Ms. Schuman has visited, is her collection of beaded belts. Cripple Creek, Colo., Maine, Niagara Falls, the Catskill Mountains, Yosemite, Utah, Vancouver, Alaska — there simply has to be a belt for every stop she made. “These were sold in just about any souvenir shop at any national park or monument,” Ms. Schuman said. “Amusingly,” she added, “they were all made in Hong Kong.”
    Okay, but what’s with the beaded belt bearing the name “Elvis”? And the suspiciously leash-like specimen spelling out “Goodd Dog”?
    “They’re really marvelous, and it brings back memories,” Ms. Schuman said. “I used to say to friends, ‘I’m a really cheap date: for $3.95, you can make me very happy. Go into a souvenir shop wherever you’re traveling and look for these.’ ”