Shadow Box Art – Creating a Tiny Universe In a Box

Shadow box artists create unique little universes in their boxes. It is an old art form where objects, both two and three dimensional, are placed within a box that is designed to display them. One side is open to allow the viewer to see this small tableau. Also, it doesn’t have to be a box, but any container that can hold a collection of objects.

One thing about shadow box art is that artists love to collect objects that when put together present a surprise to the viewer. However, shadow boxes are also created for other reasons:

As a gift for a special occasion, award presentation, or as a commemorative, containing items relating to an occasion such as a wedding, anniversary, graduation, job promotion or the birth of a baby. The objects grouped together have some personal meaning to the receiver of the gift.

Used as a way to display a collection of like items such as marbles, shot glasses, thimbles, etc into a showcase frame.

Miniature room boxes are used to create cute realistic representations of a room. These boxes are often 12″ square and inside the box a scene is created in miniature.

Then there is the naval shadow box from which this art form had its beginnings.

According to some accounts of naval history and tradition, when a sailor retires and is departing the ship for the last time, it’s considered bad luck for the sailor’s shadow to touch land before he does. Thus, the sailor’s shipmates would construct a sturdy box, hand-crafted of the finest materials, in which to display mementos of the sailor’s accomplishments – thereby symbolically creating a “shadow” of the sailor. The box safely contains the sailor’s “shadow” until he is safely ashore, at which time the shadow box can be given to the sailor in a presentation ceremony.

Another account has it that, when a sailor would join a ship’s crew, he would join that ship for his entire career. During the sailor’s voyages to ports of call around the world, he would collect many trinkets, souvenirs, and reminders of his travels. As space aboard ship was at a premium, these items tended to be small. When the sailor went ashore for the last time, his shipmates saw to it that a special ceremonial box was constructed for him. The box would hold all the possessions that had been collected during those many voyages, and would simultaneously symbolize the sailor’s career and time aboard ship.

We are also familiar with the military one where an American flag is placed inside a triangular shadow box to symbolize that the country has benefited from the faithful service of the deceased. This is then given to the soldier’s family.
Police departments and fire departments use shadow boxes in considerably the very same way the military does. On retirement they are normally presented as a symbol of their dedication and outstanding service.

Not just an art form but a tiny stage to hold a universe of memories, shadow boxes enchanted the Victorians, the Surrealists, and continue to enchant us today. Perhaps the ultimate, 21st century “shadow box” is the 3D TV experience. Here you have all of the same components but now created in pixels of light!

  “Painting With Words” – Leona M Seufert


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