Mary Chatowsky Jameson is the owner of Saltwater Studio in Newport, Rhode Island. She is an artist who explores the marine environment for inspiration in her artwork.
Her Marine Botanical pressings and collages are created from seaweed and organic elements collected on excursions primarily throughout the New England coast.
Carrie: When did you first realize the importance of art in your life?
I have always loved being creative and as a kid I was always drawing and making things. My mother encouraged me to experiment in the kitchen and from an early age I was creating my own recipes.
I remember a very significant experience when I was about 12 years old… I set up a still life and challenged myself to draw it. When I realized that I could draw what I was looking at, I knew I was an artist… it was a magical moment!
Carrie: How would you describe your art?
When people ask me what type of artwork I do, I say, “Marine Botanicals”. Usually that isn’t enough and so I say, “I work with organic material sourced from in and around the ocean.” When I still get quizzical looks (which is most of the time), I say, “I use seaweed as my medium.” And that never fully answers their question! When people finally see the work it makes sense.
In my current body of work, I am exploring marine algae as a contemporary art form. For most people, seaweed is a nuisance – something to avoid. My work presents a new awareness for consideration and offers new insights into some of the mysteries and beauty of the marine world.
Carrie: What does your workspace look like? (photos are welcome too)
My workspace is located in a building that used to house trolleys when they were active in Newport. The building is divided into bays and I have the space where the trolleys were repaired. It is a big industrial space with concrete floors and walls – perfectly suited for how I work.
I have 3 large tables that my husband built where I can spread out my containers of seaweed and saltwater. This helps me study the many specimens I’ve collected and introduce new relationships of symbiotic layering that is key to my work. There are windows and skylights and a large garage door that I keep open in the summer for lots of sunlight and breezes. The location is great for me since it’s a short 2 minute walk from my house.
Carrie: Can you describe the evolution of your artistic style? (Have you always made art with this unique vision or what was your turning point into recognizing this style was your authentic “you”?)
My love for drawing has continued throughout my life, as well as painting with oil, acrylic and watercolor. The work I had been doing before seaweed became my focus was using a combination of materials to create assemblages – I called them Grottos. However, when my son was small I was not able to spend time in the studio like I had been.
Around that time I had come across some seaweed pressings from the Victorian era (1837-1901) and was transfixed by their beauty. I had never seen seaweed up close and personal like this – it had a visceral effect on me. I was compelled to explore the process and make some for myself. Seaweed has always been pressed and studied for science, but from an artist perspective, I started noticing the shapes, colors and textures of the seaweed I was now wading through.
I begin a process that I call symbiotic layering, since I am often translating what I witness out in nature. The process is physical, mental and intuitive. Sometimes I layer or collage different types to combine textures and shapes, sometimes it is a single specimen that intrigues me. I use some of the strandy pieces as my line and transfer the energy I feel in its placement. Sometimes bits of the environment are included, like shells on a blade of dulse, or a feather tangled into small strands of a specimen. What I like about it is that this is nature, brought out of its environment, and preserved, through this layering/collaging/pressing process for observation.
Carrie: What do you hope viewers take from your artwork?
For most people, seaweed is a nuisance, something to avoid, and yet, observed like this, the beauty shines through. We are slowed down, offered a new perspective and separated from our preconceived associations. Our minds can open and we can change our views. To me this is a metaphor for our very existence. The world is full of experiences and they are uniquely ours to have. We take them and process them as only we can, on our journey of personal discovery. Growth is part of the human experience and the more we grow (open) the more or fuller, we live.
Carrie: Can you share a bit about the relationship between art and science in your creative life?
Yes! I love the ties my work has to science. Working with marine algae has been a truly transforming experience. The process of harvesting seaweeds from different New England locations is exciting and educational. When I first started I knew nothing from a scientific perspective. My attraction was mainly for the beauty of the shapes and colors of the different species. But, as I began to harvest and create more collages, my curiosity increased. I visited Harvard University’s Farlow Library and Herbarium which contains marine algae specimens from the 1800’s.
I learned of the Victorian tradition of creating scrapbooks which included seaweed pressings from those that summered at the shore. I’ve learned about the industries worldwide that harvest seaweed for its commercial properties. Most importantly I’ve learned to identify different species and by understanding the life cycle and habitat, I am connected to the natural environment with more depth and knowledge.
Carrie: What do you wish you knew that you now know about your creative process?
The creative process is a parallel journey with the search to discover yourself; what you like and dislike, what you value, what your goals are, etc… There is no reason to judge yourself negatively or think that you can’t achieve any milestone you set for yourself and your work. The trick is to stay with it, to stay open and to remain flexible. What you focus on you get more of and that is true with the negative and the positive.
Carrie: What is the first thing you do when you feel stuck working on an artwork?
Well this is not unique to creating art – getting stuck… it happens on all levels. Getting stuck sends a message that your idea or the way you’re working to solve it is not the right way, for you, for now. I will set that work aside and move on to something else – get some space from it.
It can be frustrating but it’s a learning experience and if you push through you’ll not only achieve your goal, but your confidence will increase for the next challenge. Running also helps me – I really process a lot when I’m moving and it settles my anxiety. There is also the metaphor of the start and the finish being small parts of the experience – it’s the inbetween, putting one foot in front of the other for the entire distance, that gets you there.
Carrie: What has been one hurdle you’ve overcome as a creative and how did you navigate that problem?
Ah, these running associations… I love them! Actually, there have been many, such as learning Photoshop on my own (when I started I didn’t even know how to make a proper scan), identifying my goals, staying focused and getting my work exhibited are a few. Learning Photoshop, investing in the program, acquiring computer equipment and getting prints made were all big hurdles and took me years to accomplish.
I didn’t stop making my seaweed collages, but I wanted to explore making large prints of them and to do this… well, you guessed it! I listed ‘Identifying my goals’ because this is important for an artist to think about. It’s great to make work and get better at what you do, but where do you actually want to go with it? You need to write it down and focus on the ways to get there. That’s when you’ll start to move forward towards your goals.
Carrie: What is one creative resource you can’t live without?
I was thinking of this question while I was running this morning and to be honest I don’t know if there is one absolute for me. I have been part of artist groups that met consistently for years and then I’ve been without them. I think, being a part of a creative community is hugely important, but if something changes and you can’t be part of one for a while, that’s okay too. I think being mindful and spiritual feeds awareness, which heightens reception for creative connections.
Carrie: Who/what inspires you?
If you’ve ever seen Ansel Adam’s photo of birch trees, you can almost feel the wind. You’re in a special moment, in a special place, but you know that because you are SEEING these trees with your whole being.
Emily Dickinson transformed us with her poetry – a recluse’s perspective from her backyard, but what a vast and intriguing world! Andy Goldsworthy is a contemporary artist who creates art out of nature using only natural elements. The possibilities ARE endless and them more we can open our eyes and our minds to this fascinating world, the more we grow.
Carrie: What does the word artist mean to you?
Being an artist means that you have a visceral desire to process your life experiences and ideas in an expressive way.
Additional Contact Info:
Facebook: Saltwater Studio
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