The Ukiah Daily Journal
Portals to the ocean realm
New exhibit on seaweed melds art and science
“The Curious World of Seaweed,” Grace Hudson Museum's new exhibit, opened on Jan. 28 and will run through April 30. An opening reception will take place on Friday, Feb. 3, from 5 to 8 p.m.
Along with refreshments and live music, seaweed artist, advocate, and author Josie Iselin will be available at the reception for signing her book, also called “The Curious World of Seaweed.”
Published by Heyday in 2019, this award-winning book provides the basis for the exhibit, which Iselin created in collaboration with Exhibit Envoy.
“Seaweed and kelp are some of the greatest ecoengineers of our planet,” says Iselin. “They are photosynthesizing powerhouses, growing rapidly in cold waters, creating the base of the vast ocean food chain. Kelp and seaweed provide crucial habitat for countless other organisms, both tiny and large. They sink carbon and oxygenate their nearshore waters…their stories are compelling and deserve to be told, with more than words.”
The “more than words” part began back in the 1990s, when Iselin, who holds an MFA in photography, began to use her flatbed scanner as a camera. After imaging offbeat objects such as lint and peach pits, Iselin went further afield, visiting beaches in and around San Francisco, where she has long resided. Collaborating with scientists, she began producing small, artistic books, highlighting beach stones, seashells, and pods. She started realizing that “this combination of art and science was really powerful.” Then one day, on a nature walk around Bolinas, she held a scrap of red seaweed to the sky and realized it was “a luminous scrap of amazingness.” She took it to her studio and placed it on her scanner, and “The Curious World of Seaweed” was born.
The area known to scientists as the Eastern Pacific Coast extends for thousands of miles, from the tip of Baja California to the Aleutian Islands of western Alaska. This is one of the most abundant seaweed habitats in the world, fostering bull kelp, surfgrass, nori, and many other species. Giant kelp (Macrocystis pyrifera) and bull kelp (Nereocystis luetkenana) can each grow up to heights of 100 feet, employing a holdfast system that roots them to submerged rocks.
These algae are able to thrive in only 2 percent of the ocean floor, a kind of “Goldilocks zone” where the right combination of sunlight, nutrients, and a solid ocean floor is available. Covering 71 percent of the earth's surface, much of the ocean is mysterious and inaccessible to us; Iselin sees the intertidal zones and beaches, where seaweed can be discovered, as “portals to the ocean realm.”
In addition to exploring the science of seaweed, the exhibit documents its connection to human history and culture. Native peoples have been harvesting and processing seaweed from the Pacific intertidal zone for thousands of years. European explorers collected seaweed during their expeditions.
Iselin acknowledges this inter-relation of nature and culture by overlaying her contemporary scans of marine algae (another word for seaweed) onto historical lithographs, deepening the conversation between past and present.
“This process of overlaying the new and the old,” Iselin comments, “creates this vector in time. You go from past to present and it's got this arrow on the end pointing to the future.” Given the threats that climate change is bringing to ocean environments, what, Iselin wonders, will happen to these organisms in our changing future? The act of attention to the marvelous, intricate processes of the natural world can be the first step in addressing this.
Several other events will provide a deeper dive into seaweed's fascinating biology and enduring importance, including a family-friendly program with Sue Coulter from the Noyo Center for Marine Science on March 5; a presentation on seaweed ecology by Josie Iselin on March 19; and a Pomo Perspectives on Seaweed panel on April 15.
Admission to this and all other First Fridays is free. “The Curious World of Seaweed” can also be viewed during the museum's open hours: Wed. through Sat. from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., and Sunday from noon to 4:30 p.m.
The Grace Hudson Museum is at 431 S. Main St. in Ukiah. For more information and regular fees, call (707) 467-2836 or visit www.gracehudsonmuseum. org.