Sean Collects Seashells by Santa Barbara’s Seashore

His Creations Are His Catharsis from a Lifetime of Inner Pain

Sean Bonham in his shell decorated room, Sean spends his days searching for sea shells and making decorations out of them. | Credit: Daniel Dreifuss

Sean Bonham spends most of his days alone. He has a difficult time with other people. “It’s really hard for me to function,” he said, tracing a lifetime of anxiety and depression to being kidnapped as a boy. “I try to stay as mellow as I can.”

Bonham does that by collecting shells. Thousands of them. “Whole ones, broken ones, little ones, dark ones, light ones, heavy ones.” Then he makes things. Curtains, wind chimes, jewelry, a crucifix. And he decorates furniture. “I look for the best feng shui,” he said. “When people write poetry, they string together words. When I string shells, I’m writing poetry with the beautiful things I find.”

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After 14 years of the hobby, Bonham’s small Mission Street apartment is now covered floor to ceiling with his creations, a temple of deliverance from the tempest in his mind. “It’s a way of looking at death,” he said. “These shells were all once alive. I want to preserve their beauty.” They also give him hope of one day reuniting with his late father. “I hope everyone’s right, that when you die there’s more, and I get to see my dad.”

Bonham, 57, keeps a meticulous collecting schedule ― 12 to 4 p.m. every day, rain or shine. He sticks to South Coast beaches, so he sees a lot of the same people. He often invites them to his place to see his work. “Once in a while, they take me up on it,” he said. Carpinterians are the most likely to say yes, he said; Santa Barbarans, the least. “I don’t want to be greedy,” he said. “I don’t want to do this all for myself.” 

A former barber and onetime mountain biker, Bonham would like his shells to be his legacy. But he worries that when he dies, the collection will go in the trash. “I want to will it to the city,” he said. So far, his letters haven’t gotten a response. “I guess it does sound kind of kooky,” he said.

Kids, Bonham thinks, would especially like what he’s made. “If I inspire one person, my life is worth something,” he said. “I won’t just be a broken man. I want to be more than I am.”

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