November 30, 2015
BY JUDY CARMACK BROSS
When Ittie Wirtz first disembarked from her yacht, the Blackhawk, onto the pink sands of the Bahamas, little did she know the treasures her beachcombing would uncover. For more than 25 years, Ittie and her husband, Bill, the larger-than-life owner of the Chicago Blackhawks until his death in 2007, sailed the Caribbean islands with their family and friends on the 123-foot yacht, which took them to remote islands known for rare shells.
“I decided very early on that instead of getting sunburned, I would search for shells. I went out very early in the morning before breakfast,” Ittie explained. “Billy and I spent time after Christmas, for 10 days or two weeks, with our family in the Bahamas. The waters are glorious and there were few other shellers in the remote places we found. The Berry Islands, the Exumas south of Nassau, and Staniel Cay are places we moored and found quite unusual shells.”
After being washed and dried on the stern in the Caribbean sunshine, shells in rare turquoise blue, sunrise pink and strawberry red, as well as the tiniest of sand dollars and sea urchins would later reappear on Ittie’s one-of-a-kind mirrors, picture frames, Christmas trees, candlesticks and shelves. Beloved to her friends as Ittie, Alice Pirie Wirtz currently sells these intricately created treasures at Cindy Galvin’s Maze Home and T.J. Cullen Jewelers, both in Winnetka.
Ittie estimates that she has collected more than 35 different shells, including tiny round red shells called strawberries and rice shells, no bigger than a grain of rice.
Working with tiny treasures comes naturally to Ittie, who for 14 years was curator of the Thorne Miniature Rooms at the Art Institute. Having created needlepoint designs early in her career, she loved making a tapestry for the Louis XIV Thorne Room and also creating a prayer rug for Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle at the Museum of Science and Industry.
“I called myself a cleaning lady in miniatures,” Ittie said about working with the Thorne Rooms and the Fairy Castle, created by her former mother-in-law, silent screen star Colleen Moore.
Designing with shells is both relaxing as well as time consuming. Ittie first began making Christmas trees no bigger than a foot and holiday wreaths. Now she sometimes creates very large mirrors, selling for more than $1,000.
“After cleaning the shells, often removing lots of seaweed, I dried them carefully, then packed them for their return to Chicago,” she said. “I find antique mirrors at a variety of shops, and each shell sits on pink sand on the frame just like it did on a beach faraway. I follow the design of the mirror and the shape of the shells, and no two designs are alike, except for twin mirrors I custom made for a client.”
The mother of photographer and Columbia College professor Alice Hargrave and sons, businessmen Charles and Bill Hargrave, as well as grandmother of eight, Ittie is delighted that she has “a roomful of shells off her kitchen” to store her beachcombing finds for the very beautiful gifts she continues to create.