Basic design

From left, LaNelle Davis, Susan Hill and Hannah Hill are shown with the basic design for a mosaic mural that will be placed on the Willis Brothers Seafood building. Ms. Davis hopes to capture the community’s spirit and memorialize the legacy of the former clam house building with her art, and she also hopes for some community contributions. (Contributed photo)

An artist is trying to commemorate a piece of Williston’s history with a mosaic mural, and she is looking for community participation.

LaNelle Davis’ mosaic will capture the community spirit involved in the former Willis Brothers Seafood building, also known as “Elmer’s clam house.”

It will honor the work, the community and the people who worked at the clam house.

“A strong image of women sitting and working around tables was burned into my mind from trips Down East with my father back in the 1960s,” Ms. Davis said when asked about her inspiration for the mosaic. “I had passively been looking for a building for another mosaic when my friend, Barbara Garrity-Blake, told me about the old clam house in Williston being renovated and thought it might work.”

Neither of the women knew who owned the building, but after a little digging, Ms. Garrity-Blake learned Susan Hill, owner of Down East Mariculture, was the woman they were looking for.

“I showed her (Susan Hill) examples of my past mosaic murals and explained my desire to create a mural honoring the work, the people and community that the clam house represented,” Ms. Davis said. “She contacted Nancy Willis Lewis, daughter of Elmer Willis, former owner of Willis Brothers Seafood, and obtained photos from several other sources. One photo obtained was that of four women working at a table. I think Susan and I knew immediately that this was the image to work from for a design.”

Ms. Davis said the process of creating a mosaic mural is long, but rewarding in the end. It starts with the design process and moves to applying the mosaic pieces.

“It requires patience, endurance and is dependent on the weather,” Ms. Davis said. “It all must be accomplished in the timeframe of past the last frost date to the first frost date, otherwise the adhesive and grout won’t cure correctly.”

Ms. Davis said the design process takes a lot of time because she is old-school in her method. She does not use a computer design program or electric tile cutter when creating her mosaics.

“Like my grandmother who used to cut out dress patterns on the floor, I, too, make large paper patterns of the design, always on the floor, because it’s the only place I have that’s big enough,” she said. “I trace those patterns onto the building and begin with an outline of mirror. After that, based on the available materials, I decide which colors are to be used where. I break whatever I have with a hammer and ‘fine tune’ shapes with a hand-held tile nipper.”

Though Williston’s clam house in particular does not hold a special place in Ms. Davis’ heart, the industry as a whole means something to her and the community she is trying to capture in her work.

“…Collectively, they all have special meaning to me one, because I remember them so vividly as a child ... the busy-ness of it all, the smell, the sound of people talking, the low-slung buildings by the water... and two, because they are no longer a part of the landscape,” Ms. Davis said.  “Fish houses/clam houses provided work, income, put food on the table and shoes on the feet of many families over the years. It was a place to work but was also a place where you saw your kin, church and community members. It’s all but gone now.”

Ms. Davis has been working on mosaic pieces since the early 90s. Her hobby started after working with her mentor, Virginia Bullman, a mosaic artist in Chapel Hill.

“I saw some of her work in the early 1990s, asked her to show me how she did it and we ended up creating over 25 larger than life cement ‘ladies’ – all with dresses or aprons of dishes,” Ms. Davis said. “In 2010, she insisted we go to Philadelphia, Pa., to see some of Isaiah Zagar’s mosaic murals. I was completely awestruck by them.”

After taking a class with Mr. Zagar in 2012, Ms. Davis created her first mosaic in Pittsboro, but she credits her work to Ms. Bullman.

“Virginia was and still is a guidepost in my life. Without her generosity of spirit, knowledge and wisdom I might have never found this passion of mine,” she said.

Those who worked at the clam house or have family members who worked at the clam house are asked to bring a dish to contribute to the mosaic.

The dishes can be dropped off at the clam house, 586 Highway 70, Williston, by Sunday, March 24.

“Please label the box or dish with the family member who worked there and a short remembrance if desired. At the end of the project a plaque will be installed with those family members’ names,” Ms. Davis said.

For more information, email Ms. Davis at or Ms. Hill at

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