The Art of Loving Oysters

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Artist Megan McCutcheon celebrates the diversity of Southern New England’s oysters, such as this one from Walrus and Carpenter in Ninigret, RI, in her watercolor portraits.

For millennia, artists have turned to the natural world as a source of inspiration, elevating a lowly cantaloupe or bunch of grapes into still lifes of the highest caliber. But Megan McCutcheon isn’t interested in fruit.

“I always loved to paint and draw as a kid,” says the biotech professional who moonlights as an artist. Her academics led her to a more structured career path, so to find an outlet for her creative yearnings, she took a watercolor painting class.

She was keen on the medium, but not the subject matter being presented in the studio. “Of course you paint still life,” she explains. “They bring in the fruit, and it’s like, so boring.” Picking up an oyster shell one day, she decided to use it as a still life exercise. She found it a lot more interesting than painting bananas and apples. “It reminded me of old scientific drawings. Technically, all Eastern oysters are the same species, but once you start paying attention, they all look so different.”

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Today, the Providence-based artist sells her technical but soulful watercolor portraits of oysters from across Southern New England through her Etsy shop, The Oyster Emporium; they’re also available locally at Craftland and the Newport Art Musuem.

With more than 50 oyster farms in Rhode Island alone – more than half launched in the last six years – and a new festival dedicated to the bivalves, oysters are the Ocean State’s version of the microbrewery. (Here’s a list of the 40 farms closest to Newport.) Or perhaps a more apt comparison is to the wineries of Napa, as each oyster has it own specific oceanic version of terroir; brininess, sweetness, and tang vary from farm to farm based on location and conditions, as does appearance. It’s these lovely variations that Megan’s attentive paintings celebrate.

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“My work is for a certain type of person,” says the artist. “Not everyone will understand that each oyster has it owns flavor, literally. But it’s really exciting and makes me happy that people get what I’m trying to do and appreciate the work.”

So which is Megan’s favorite? “I like them all,” she says judiciously. “But I like the Rhode Island oysters best. They’re so good, so delicious – especially in the winter, of course.” But are Rhode Islanders ready to consider oysters an art form? It’s plausible. After all, you’ve never heard of the Ocean State Fruit Festival, have you?

Is an oyster watercolor the perfect gift for someone you know? There’s still time to get it for Christmas! Follow us on facebook or Instagram for a special discount on paintings from The Oyster Emporium exclusively for Puddingstone readers.

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All images courtesy of Megan McCutcheon/The Oyster Emporium.
READ MORE: Love oysters, as much as we do? You might also like Have Raw Bar, Will Travel.

Meaghan O'Neill is a writer, editor, blogger wrangler, and the founder of Puddingstone Post. She was formerly editor-in-chief of TreeHugger, Discovery Channel online, and TLC's Parentables. Her writing has appeared in numerous print and online publications, and her book, Ready, Set, Green: 8 Weeks to Modern Eco-Living (Villard/Random House) was published in 2008. She lives in Newport, RI with her family.

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