Dusti Bongé Biloxi oyster artwork

Artworks tell stories of place. Stories of time and people. They offer insights into how people lived, changes that have occurred. Every artwork – the good ones anyways – tells a story. These Dusti Bongé artworks tell a story of Biloxi, MS, her hometown, before man made catastrophes devastated the oyster population off the coast there. They tell stories of natural abundance, and because that natural abundance no longer exists, they tell stories of greed, overfishing, pollution, development and man’s rapacious appetite to kill the golden goose upon which it exists – the earth.

Analysis of the artworks, as always, comes from Dusti Bongé Art Foundation Executive Director Ligia M. Römer.

Dusti Bongé, Untitled (Pile of Oyster Shells and Luggers), 1944, watercolor and ink on paper, 13 ¾”; x 16 3/4”

Dusti Bongé, Untitled (Oyster Shells and Cannery), 1940, charcoal on paper, 14”; x 17”

Dusti Bongé, Untitled (Oyster Shells and Cannery), 1940, charcoal on paper, 14”; x 17”
Dusti Bongé, Untitled (Oyster Shells and Cannery), 1940, charcoal on paper, 14”; x 17”

This week we revisit one of the most unique landscape elements one could find in Biloxi back in the early 20th century, the enormous piles of oyster shells. Earlier, around the 1870s, barrels of oyster shells were returned to the water in the Back Bay to preserve existing oyster beds. Soon after, they would also be used to pave the roads and streets in town. 

By 1903, the year Dusti Bongé was born, Biloxi had become known as the seafood capital of the world.

During those years the city seafood industry produced about 6,000,000 pounds of oysters a year. While cannery workers were paid by the hour, the oyster shuckers were paid by the pound. The amount of oysters that were being shucked on a daily basis was so tremendous that the shells would all be thrown on heaps along the waterfront or near the canneries, heaps which would literally grow into mounds high enough to climb.  

Dusti, always inspired in one way or another by her distinctive hometown surroundings, rendered the oyster mounds much like she did the canneries, shrimp boats and fishing camps. Always abstracted, unadorned, thereby capturing a true sense of the place rather than a picture-perfect image. And, like her other favorite city scenes, she drew and painted the oyster mounds more than once, in several charcoal sketches and watercolor paintings. 

These days the oyster mounds are long gone, but remnants of crushed oyster shells are everywhere underfoot.

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