In the Studio with Mary Chatowsky Jameson

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For the past six years, artist Mary Chatowsky Jameson has been working primarily with seaweed as a medium. She was inspired by Victorian-era scrapbooks made by tourists to Newport, who would press “flowers of the ocean” between the pages. An exhibition of her work is currently on view at the Newport Art Museum.

Mary Chatowsky Jameson’s artistic process starts with a trip to the nearest beach. She wades through the briny intertidal zone with a bucket in one hand, looking down at the water that laps around her ankles. Kayakers, windsurfers, and paddle boarders splash by, but she barely notices. She’s only looking at the seaweed.

The founder of Saltwater Studio in Newport, R.I., Jameson creates what she calls “marine botanicals” using algae such as Agardh’s Red, Grinnell’s Pink Leaf, and Irish Moss as a contemporary art form. Most of the seaweed used in Jameson’s artwork is harvested from Third Beach in nearby Middletown. During the summer, she’s there nearly every week, noting the different pigments and textures that indicate subtle changes in the ocean’s temperature. The most unusual, shapely, or colorful specimens go in her bucket, along with a little salt water to keep them fresh until she gets home.

Often Jameson brings a folding table, blotting paper, and cardboard to the beach, and creates seaweed pressings on the sandy stretch of land that overlooks the tidal Sakonnet River. She uses a paintbrush to guide the fronds into place, her artist’s eye transforming a colorful mess of tangles and clumps into a simple yet elegant composition. On wet or windy days, Jameson works out of her Newport studio, pictured here. Her freezer contains plastic containers of seaweed and saltwater, waiting to be de-thawed on a January day when Third Beach is buried under snow. Many of her pressings eventually become larger-than-life prints, turning a simple marine organism into a fresh, modern composition that still conveys the essence of the sea.

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Jameson’s work elicits strong reactions from viewers, who are used to dismissing the seaweed clinging to their bathing suits as an inconvenient nuisance of summer, like mosquito bites and sunburns. But her attention to line, shape, color, and texture makes this abundant natural resource into something ethereal.

Deeply attuned to the rhythms of the coastal environment, Jameson is careful to have a low impact. She only collects seaweed that floats, rather than pulling it off the beach or rocks. When she finds discarded plastic bottles along the shore, she picks them up and uses them to haul salt water back to her aptly named studio. Though it’s an unintended consequence of her work, she sometimes finds herself inspiring a new generation of conservationists, as well. The curious children who ask what she’s doing leave the beach apprised that every part of the natural world — even itchy, slimy, and occasionally smelly seaweed — deserves to be treasured.

Photos by Meaghan O’Neill. Click any image below to launch the gallery.

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Antonia Noori Farzan is a writer living in Newport, Rhode Island. She enjoys cooking vegan meals, practicing yoga, designing floral arrangements, and photographing old houses for her blog, Clapboard and Shingle.

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