Dusti Bongé Biloxi, MS oyster shells and shrimp boats

For Dusti Bongé, the Biloxi oyster shells and shrimp boats were what the Paris streetscape and countryside was to the Impressionists. What New York City was to the Ashcan School. It was the backdrop of her life and of course she painted it.

This week, in collaboration with the Dusti Bongé Art Foundation, which is headquartered in Biloxi and open to visitors, we have a classic Biloxi scene. Analysis of the artwork, as always, comes from Dusti Bongé Art Foundation Executive Directo Ligia M. Römer.

Dusti Bongé, Oyster Shells and Shrimp Boats, 1946, watercolor and ink on paper, 13” x 16”, Paul Bongé Collection

Oysters were, and still are, one of the main bounties of the sea being harvested and processed right here in Biloxi. One of the unique features of the urban landscape in Biloxi during its heyday as a seafood capital were the large oyster mounds near and around the harbor. 

After harvest, oyster shuckers would remove the oysters’ shells, and the latter would be piled high near the factories where the oysters would be processed. A by-product from the seafood industry, the mounds were literally thousands of oyster shells piled so high a person could actually climb them. 

The shells were subsequently often used for paving the streets.

Dusti Bongé, although being utterly familiar with the oyster shell mounds and all things oyster, instinctively picked up on this most unusual aspect of her daily environment and sketched the mounds on numerous occasions. They were an integral part of the local industrial scenery, and thus like the shrimp boats and factories they became a recurring theme in her early works. She rendered them in her usual highly abstracted manner.

In all of her sketches of oyster mounds, Dusti captures the mound as a dominating, pale, vaguely pyramidal form, with clearly recognizable anchoring elements in the fore- and back-grounds. Thus, in this case, the mound is clearly the focal point of the work, yet it is inherently the least defined or detailed element.

The small boats in the foreground, and the three schooners to the left with the factory to the right in the background, give the mound context and scale. The composition as a whole shows a landscape not to be found anywhere else.  

Although these mounds are no longer part of the scenery, the oyster shells are everywhere still, from the beach to one’s back yard.

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