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Seaweed in the Spotlight: Q&A with Artist Josie Iselin

Published July 01, 2014

Though its name may suggest otherwise, Seaweed is actually an essential and desirable part of our oceans.

ocean garden print

Also called kelp, these sea plants provide food for sea urchins and fish, offer protection from predators, provide shelter for larger animals, and act as nurseries for many marine species. This ocean flora also helps clean the sea of carbon dioxide, creates oxygen, and prevents erosion of sea cliffs. 

Despite its critical role in the survival of our underwater ecosystems, seaweed is often overlooked or seen as a nuisance by beach-goers. They often tangle swimmers, and leave an unpleasant aroma when cluttered on the beach, and thus are at risk of being cleared from coastal areas.

Artist and author Josie Iselin is helping to raise awareness to the beauty and importance of seaweed in the ocean in her book “An Ocean Garden.”

As an artist, she has captured the intricate detail and eye-popping color of seaweed for many years, using a digital scanner. The book includes photographs with seaweeds mostly from Maine and California. 

ocean garden print

We recently had the opportunity to chat with Josie about her artistic process and the creation of her new book:

National Aquarium: Why did you choose seaweed as the subject of this project?

Josie Iselin: Seaweed is really an unsung hero of the near-shore oceans, or intertidal zone. When I first realized how visually varied and fantastically gorgeous seaweed, or marine algae, is—an intensity of color and variety of form that makes designing a book an absolute joy—how could I resist? Then I met Kathy Ann Miller, the curator of marine algae at the University Herbarium at UC Berkeley. She is that special scientist whose enthusiasm for her specialty, seaweed, is infectious and whose ability to make the science understandable and fascinating to a visual artist like myself is rare. She made the idea of putting a book together that combined the art and science of seaweed a thrilling project.

NA: What do you hope to inspire in your readers?

JI: I have been using the scanner as a camera since 1994. I have used it to create seven books on forms in nature, so it is my preferred method of image making and book designing. For the seaweeds, the scanner is able to capture the translucent qualities and true color that a regular SLR or point-and-shoot camera can’t. Also, the scanner, by stripping away context and background, allows me to highlight the details of the morphology or form of a given specimen that are often hard to see in the field. But I had to be ready to bring goopy and large specimens into my studio and place them on the scanner!

ocean garden print

My guiding premise is that something we learn to love, we will learn more about and feel compelled to preserve.  Seaweeds are such a holistic element to the ocean shore ecology, they are oxygenators, create habitat and are the base of the food chain. They hold the nutrients of the ocean within them so directly.  And yet they are so often ignored when describing life in the sea. Rachel Carson’s ecological view-point and stupendous writing is my guiding light.

NA: How do you capture the movement of seaweed in a still image?

JI: The scanner allows me to capture a seaweed’s dynamic quality that gives a sense of its life under the lid of the tide. If I stick a seaweed or kelp that is fresh from the field on the scanner I can give it a posture that comes naturally to it. It is still wet and malleable.  Even when seaweeds dry they often dry in an organic way that gives a sense of their motion. Again, the scanner is a fantastic tool for capturing these organisms; each image is a well-wrought portrait of perhaps a mundane, everyday seaweed.

ocean garden print

NA: When did you first start to take an interest in seaweed and capturing it in an artistic way?

JI: When I was developing ideas for my book "Beach: a Book of Treasure," which takes a close look at almost everything you might find at the beach and asks/answers questions about why it is the way it is or why it is important ecologically and culturally, I joined a group that docents the Duxbury Reef, just north of San Francisco.  When out on the reef, I just happened to hold an innocuous scrap of seaweed up to the sky and was blown away by the intensity of color and fabulousness of form. As a visual artist and designer I knew I had to get some specimens back to my scanner to experiment with. I also became aware that the group that I was a part of, the Rocky Shore Naturalists group organized by the California Academy of Sciences, knew lots about invertebrates and shore birds and marine mammals, etc. but not so much about marine algae. I had to find the pockets of expertise to learn about seaweed.

NA: How does storytelling help further the creative process, and enhance the final product?

JI: As a bookmaker, I love working with the interplay between the visual story line and the narrative text.  The visual sequencing is very important for making the book flow and where and how the stories of color, how the tide works, seaweed architecture etc. fit in is part of solving the puzzle that is the challenge for each book.  Word and image are such great complements for story-telling, but the power comes not in straight illustration or caption.  There is a conceptual leap from image to text that makes the book come alive and the various mini-stories resonate. There is also the pure poetry of the names of each specimen that add a layer to the whole. How to pose the science in the context of my own experiences on the beach was also a challenge in terms of making it accessible but also to cover complex ideas.  I was determined to write without the jargon that you might find in guide books or scientific writing, but that puts up a barrier to non-scientists like myself.

ocean garden print

NA: How do you hope the perception of seaweed changes as a result of this book?

JI: My hope is to have more people actually look at seaweed.  Seaweed has not had a positive brand in our American culture but that is changing rapidly as people realize its fantastic nutritional and other healthful benefits.  My hope is that people broaden their idea of what to think about when they are on the beach and all the access points the beach provides for thinking about the oceans. Seaweed and kelp are as important as the rain forests of the continents. The rain forests as a concept have had a great branding campaign over the past decades; everyone now knows how important they are to our planets future.  

Now it's the kelp forests’ turn! If that awareness translates to a bit of interesting knowledge and the sense that we must be good stewards, not just of individual species but of the wholeness of the ocean, then that's great. But if the book just gets people to stop and rethink something they might not even notice, or might turn their nose up at…well, that’s plenty!  If it prompts a college kid to take a course in marine botany or phycology, even better!

For more on Josie's work and how to order prints, click here

Images courtesy of Josie Iselin. 

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