She Makes Seashells from the Maine Shore:

Michelle Provencal and her Thirdlee & Co.

Michelle Provencal

As a child, Michelle Provencal was always gluing and crafting things. She is the third generation in line of creative individuals. Michelle credits her maternal grandfather as the one who got her “excited about art as a way of life” and the women on her father’s side kept her engaged in crafting. Michelle recalls that a lot of fun things were made during her summertime visits to her great-grandmother’s cottage, situated along Saco Bay in Biddeford near the campus of the University of New England.

As Michelle describes it, the cottage’s location was an amazing spot. Each time the water receded, it revealed a tidal playground.

“We’d have this incredible front yard where we were able to go and play. We spent a lot of time out on the sandbars collecting sand dollars and looking for crabs and seaweed.”

While Michelle and her cousins broke many of the fragile sand dollars they collected, her paternal great-grandmother transformed the unbroken ones by bleaching and treating them with sealant. Sometimes the woman fashioned them into jewelry. On one sand dollar, she painted a miniature seascape. That one she gave to her daughter, Michelle’s grandmother. Michelle uses her hands to demonstrate the size of the large pendant on the necklace her grandmother wore during those summers at the cottage.  Such memories persist, even though the cottage has disappeared from its place by the shore.

Michelle couldn’t visualize how art would be a career until she went to college. At Pratt Institute in New York City, she discovered the field of industrial design. Her studies allowed her to explore both the foundations of art and the breadth of options and art specialty areas that exist. Industrial design is a field that encompasses a wide range of careers, such as designing cars, plumbing fixtures, household interiors, and shoes.  Michelle thought that shoe design was a good fit for her. Someone from Macy’s had a different idea for the art school graduate. She was hired to work with their store’s home furnishings design team. Michelle’s first job was designing and developing products for Macy’s.

Michelle Provencal
Michelle Provencal

For nearly two decades, Michelle has designed home furnishings for a number of companies including Pottery Barn, Coach, and Anthropologie. One of the most memorable designs she helped develop was when she worked for Anthropologie. For that project, Michelle travelled to Romania with a sketch for what was envisioned to be a show-stopping centerpiece. It was to be a glass candelabra shaped like a sailing ship with “arms” to hold the candles. When Michelle showed the design to the glassmaker she’d travelled to meet, he shook his head in disbelief. Michelle laughs when she tells me how the man reacted at seeing the design. She was sure the glass artisan thought the young American woman was crazy.

The ornaments provide Michelle with the joy that comes with their creation and their power to connect her “with people, through this thing that is so special to me.”

“He shakes his head. ‘We can’t do this,’” Michelle remembers him saying.

Michelle’s training as a designer taught her about production methods and materials. This background helped her realize that by deconstructing the candelabra design into individual elements, the glass maker would be able to visualize how to build the final product. Michelle took out a pad of paper and began to draw a series of simple shapes, steps on how the glass centerpiece could be assembled. The project became a great collaboration between the two of them with particular significance for the glassmaker, who had served in his country’s navy.

Michelle Provencal

Michelle does not consider herself a risk taker. However, a risk is exactly what she took in 2016 when she resigned from her job. At the time, she had no clear vision of the future.

“Sometimes you just have to jump and do what’s right in the moment,” Michelle said. The moment came when her mother died.

Michelle had been living with her husband in San Francisco. They had talked about moving East one day, but they expected it would be sometime further in the future. The immediacy of their move was precipitated by the responsibilities associated with the loss of Michelle’s mother. The bereaved daughter and her husband returned to Maine. And that’s when the magic happened for her. She discovered a new way to channel her childhood memories and love for crafting.

Michelle’s eyes widen as she describes the “fluffy, thick, clean, beautiful” carded wool she uses to sculpt seashells and other marine-themed ornaments for Thirdlee & Co., her private brand. The name she uses for her needle-felted designs is a tribute to her family as Michelle is the third generation of the Lee family. In addition to her original creations, Michelle sells a limited number of items she outsources, all keeping to the Maine coastal theme. She also continues to do freelance work for companies needing assistance with home furnishing design. 

In the past, Michelle had designed felt ornaments for other companies, but she had never crafted them herself. Her first experience felting was when she returned to Maine. She wanted a distraction from her day-to-day responsibilities. Michelle learned the technique by watching do-it-yourself videos online. She loved felting yet never thought she’d stick with it. That term is apt because a sharp object is involved in this otherwise soft art. A roughly three-inch long needle with notches along one end and a triangular or star pointed tip is poked repeatedly into the wool. This action grabs and entwines the fibers. The more the fibers are poked, the denser the material becomes. Occasionally, the intended target is missed, and the crafter’s finger is hit, with a painful result.

The signature creation that Michelle makes for Thirdlee & Co. is a mussel shell. She has made nearly 500 of them. Each shell is crafted by hand without using a mold. She begins by crafting the bottom layer, using white sheep’s wool. Additional layers of blues and grays are layered on to create a remarkably realistic looking mussel shell. Michelle locally sources her wool from Port Fiber in Portland and Halcyon Yarn in Bath. Each shell is personalized by sewing on little pearl beads and a number that indicates where it falls in the collection. The mussel shells are a labor of love, and the same is true for the sand dollars, clam shells, and other items Michelle makes.

The ornaments provide Michelle with the joy that comes with their creation and their power to connect her “with people, through this thing that is so special to me.” The connections are to Maine, childhood summers, the coast, and the ocean.  Summing up these thoughts, she says, “Maine is the root of my inspiration. For me it is the right place to have this business. It wouldn’t work anywhere else.”

For more information, please contact Michelle Provencal by visiting Thirdlee & Co. at www.thirdleeco.com. See Michelle discuss her craft on the Women Mind the Water Podcast, Episode 4, at www.womenmindthewater.com

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