EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in the April 2010 issue of Our State.
In Rebekah Joy Brown’s hands, duck eggs turn into tree ornaments pierced with patterns and etched with sea creatures, butterflies, flowers, or holiday icons. Goose eggs become baskets, nativity scenes, raindrops, a gyroscope, even lace. Emu eggs evolve into colorful, multilayered nature scenes. Ostrich eggs become a patchwork of dogwood leaves or a world map, with the shape of the egg magically intact and the missing elements as fascinating as those that remain.
Four years ago, then-17-year-old Brown discovered she had a talent for the unusual art of carving and sculpting eggshells. With little training beyond watching some instructional DVDs, she uses a high-powered, modified dental drill to transform these fragile canvases into intricate works of art.
“I’ve always enjoyed making things out of wood,” she says. “When I was little, my dad used to take me to his shop, put a block of wood in a vise, and get out a chisel, talking to me the whole time about safety rules and which way to carve the grain. Then he would let me hold the chisel and put his hand over mine, and we would make a bowl or a spoon or a boat.” Brown continued to carve wood into her teenage years.
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In 2006, Brown’s parents were at a woodworking products show in Atlanta and met Dr. Lew Jensen, a dentist who developed the 300,000-revolutions-per-minute modified dental drill that Brown uses to carve eggshells. The handpiece works straight, more like a pen, rather than angled like a standard dental drill. Jensen conceived the idea for the tool during a family Easter egg-decorating contest and now sells it to engravers of wood, glass, stones, and eggshells.
Brown’s parents thought she would like to try the tool, and they brought her one of Jensen’s DVDs showing the process. Brown was intrigued. Back home in Franklin in western North Carolina, they located an artist in Knoxville who agreed to let Brown try out his drill on several media, including a goose egg.
Brown and her parents bought one of Jensen’s drills, and she carved her first artistic pattern on an eggshell on Good Friday in 2006. A few months later, Brown won second place among 75 artists in the Folkmoot USA festival in Waynesville.
Now, Brown’s hobby has evolved into a thriving home-based business, Rebekah Joy Studio. To stock galleries and fulfill special orders for custom designs, Brown spends her days creating eggshell art in a refurbished outbuilding on her family’s peaceful farm on the outskirts of Elizabeth City, where they moved a little more than two years ago.
Carving eggshells is painstaking work. Brown starts with a freehand sketch or a stenciled design in pencil directly on the eggshell. Then comes the drilling. Because eggshell dust is toxic, Brown works in a special workstation her father created for her. What Brown calls “the bubble” is a wood box with a Plexiglas dome that houses the drill. Two openings in the side allow her to insert her hands into the box. The bottom of the box is a mesh screen, and the egg debris and dust are suctioned through the screen into a filter as she carves.
Brown wears sound-canceling earphones to drown out the grating whine of the drill and pipes her favorite music into her ears. Wearing latex gloves to protect her skin, she cradles the egg in one hand and uses the drill to etch or carve with the other. Depending on the type of eggshell and the task at hand, she chooses a carbide, diamond, or stone burr — diamond and stone for shaping and smoothing, carbide for making holes and cutting out shapes.
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Brown buys her eggs mostly from farms in Texas and Kentucky, although sometimes she’ll find ostrich eggs on eBay. The eggs arrive blown, cleaned, and sanitized.
From smallest to largest, she works on duck, goose, emu, and ostrich eggs. The smaller eggs are thinner and can’t withstand as much carving as the large eggs; still, they are far sturdier than chicken eggs. Ostrich shells are the thickest and most durable, ideal for being carved and pierced, and emu shells are prized for their layers of color — a deep, green-black on the outside, teal or lavender in the middle, and white on the inside.
Each tap of her drill must be precise and sure, and Brown’s confidence is apparent. She dives right in with the drill, frequently working in the negative space, innately seeing what needs to be removed to achieve the end result. It’s a skill that requires extreme patience and an artistic eye.
Brown can work only a few hours at a time because the vibration and noise of the drill are intense and the intricacy of the work requires mental distance.
“When I’m working on a piece, often it doesn’t look right,” Brown says. “But usually I come back the next day and see it’s not so bad.”
When Brown finishes carving, she and her mother lightly scrub any remaining pencil marks from the eggshells with Comet cleanser and a baby toothbrush. Then they spray the eggs with a clear acrylic finish for a layer of protection and adhere jewelry findings or bases, if needed. Rebekah signs, numbers, and dates each egg, then nests it carefully in gold shred, so that no side of the egg is ever touching its box.
Brown likes coming up with new designs, most of which are inspired by nature, and she welcomes custom orders. Her most unusual requests have been a motorcycle, bagpipes, and a spinning wheel.
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‘Just an egg’
With loose red curls, an athletic build, and sturdy hands, Brown is anything but fragile. She earned a Black Belt in the Tang Soo Do martial art and played on a traveling fast-pitch softball team for many years. She now plays co-ed slow-pitch softball and has an outdoorsy lean — canoeing, sculling, swimming, drawing, painting, and riding her horse in her free time.
“In normal life, I’m actually kind of a clumsy person,” says Brown. “I’ve broken all of our drinking glasses. Friends are always carrying things for me so I won’t drop them. Then I go and carve eggshells for a living. That’s irony for you.”
Everyone wants to know if Brown ever breaks the shells. She says she has broken numerous goose and duck eggs, many times on the last cut. She has never broken an ostrich egg; her dad once kicked one around on the ground at an art show to prove its sturdiness. Once, Brown broke an intricate basket-shaped eggshell while taking pictures of it. But breaking eggs doesn’t ruffle Brown.
“If you break it, it’s just an egg,” she says. “You have the pattern, and it’ll probably be better the next time. No sense getting worked up over something you can’t do anything about.”
Brown’s eggs have been selling through word of mouth, her website, art shows, media exposure, and galleries. She ships eggs all over the United States and to Canada, and so far only a few have broken in transit. Her work can be found at The Wooden Feather gallery in Duck on the Outer Banks.
At 21, Brown says she doesn’t know exactly where this creative path is leading her. She is taking art classes at College of the Albemarle, hopes to do more college someday, and wants to play more softball.
“I want the eggs to get better and better,” she says. “But somehow I want to help other people with this. Otherwise, it doesn’t mean much. It would be kind of sad if I did it for pretty things, if it doesn’t lift someone’s spirit.”