A shell is the canvas for Leigh Harris.
Jeweled and beaded, carved, painted and filigreed, lined with satin or containing tiny dioramas, Leigh Harris’ eggs look like something out of the 19th-century workshops of Peter Carl Fabergé—opulent gifts fit for a czarina. But closer inspection reveals a much more delicate medium. Fabergé’s eggs were cast in gold; Harris’ were laid by ducks, rheas, and ostriches.
Her career as an egg artist began with an abandoned Easter duckling. After someone left the dying pet near a pond, Harris—a 2001 graduate of UT’s now-defunct zoology program—rescued it. Soon, she was faced with a predictable problem.
“She laid an egg every single day,” Harris says. “I had dozens and dozens of duck eggs, and it seemed like such a waste, because I don’t use eggs that much.”
Inspiration struck as she was flipping through channels one day and landed on an episode of How It’s Made.
“They were showing how to make a jewelry box out of an ostrich egg,” Harris says. “I thought, I can do that.”
With a Dremel tool and dollhouse hinges, Leigh improvised her first few egg creations. Her Facebook friends were impressed, but Leigh soon realized that she had a lot to learn. At the 40th annual Dallas Egg Show, she glimpsed the full potential of the craft.
“I saw some of the eggs people were making, and I was just floored,” Harris says. “I looked at my little egg, and it looked like nothing.”
Eggers, as they are known, will tell you that California and Washington are the American hubs of the craft, but Texas is notable, too, in that Patricia Harding lives here. She’s one of the most distinguished eggers in the world, and the first ever to earn the Grand Master title from the International Egg Art Guild. In addition to common themes such as music boxes and fully functional miniature carousels, Harding’s portfolio includes many whimsical pieces, such as a creepy jack-in-the-box, a fortune-telling egg, and an intricate relief carving titled “Dragon Butt,” which features the mythical creature’s face on one side and his posterior on the reverse. Leigh found Harding’s contact info and cold-called her, asking for mentorship.
“Bring it on,” Harding said. She believes that it’s important to bring younger artists into the craft to keep it going. Harris, in her mid-30s, already stands out among her colleagues.
“If you ever go to these shows, most of the artists are very advanced in age—I mean mid-80s,” Harris says. “There used to be an egg show in San Antonio, but the woman who did that passed away. She was 92 years old.” Since she took over the role of editing the guild’s newsletter about a year ago, Harris has published half a dozen obituaries for longtime eggers. “It’s building in popularity, but at the same time, it’s a dying art,” she says.
Over the past two years, Harris has frequently made the 90-minute drive from New Braunfels to Paige, Texas, where Harding lives and tends to a menagerie of about 250 doves, pigeons, geese, ostriches, and other birds.
“I would [leave her on] her project and say, ‘OK, I gotta go feed my animals. If you have any problems, come look me up,’” Harding says. “And she did! She would come say, ‘All right, I don’t know what to do now.’”
Harris says Harding pushes her to pursue perfection and encourages her to submit work to be judged in competition.
“For the master level, you can only lose five points, and those points can be anything. If you have glue showing, that’s a point off. If your stand is a little too big for your egg, that’s a point off. Your egg has to be perfect,” Harris says.
Like many eggers who’ve come before her, Harris has gradually become so immersed in the craft that it has transformed her life and her home. She has raised 14 ducks and more than 40 chickens.
“Fancy chickens,” she clarifies. “They all lay different colored eggs.” Some eggers buy their eggs rather than raise their own birds, but the exotic ones can be expensive and difficult to ship. Avian flu outbreaks have, in Harding’s words, “kinda put a damper on things.” Harris aspires to someday have an egging studio as well-equipped as her mentor’s, including an expensive dental drill.
“A lot of eggers who have been doing this for years all have the air tool. All of them. I envy the air tool,” she says. “I gaze upon them from afar.”
Photos by Matt Valentine
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Mitzi Irene Nuhn Dreher:
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