Submitted as part of the Women Mind the Water (WMW) digital stories project produced by Pam Ferris-Olson, in conjunction with Stories from Main Street and the traveling exhibition "Water/Ways." This story is one in a series created for a podcast in 2020, featuring regional artists whose inspiration blends conversation, activism, science, and water. Find earlier stories from the WMW initiative by searching for "Women Mind the Water" on this website.
Mary Chatowsky Jameson, artist/owner of Saltwater Studio in Newport, Rhode Island, is inspired by the ocean. She goes to the shore to collect seaweed and in her studio creates art that showcases the colors, shapes, and textures of marine botanicals.
Pam Ferris-Olson: So, as you know, I have started this podcast to engage artists in conversation about their work and exploring their connection with the ocean and its influence on their art. Through these stories, we hope to inspire action to protect our world's water resources. And Mary, I want to start by asking you to tell me your journey about becoming an artist.
Mary Jameson: (00:32) Well, I mean, I've always been an artist. I studied graphic design in college, and I worked in that field, and I did museum studies. And so, I worked in the curatorial department at a large company. For a while, they had an art collection. So, I've done different facets of working in the art field. I'm still a fine art appraiser. I do that work.
Mary Jameson: (01:03) But I would say... Let's see, my son is 14 now. When he was born, we're in my studio now. My studio, how do I say this? My husband had this studio for his business. It was picture art and picture framing up in Boston. And I had a small part of the studio. He sold that business some years ago. We were living up in Boston. We moved down here. So ever since I've been able to focus on my art, things have expanded. Things are changing. My work is changing, and yeah, so.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (01:53) Well, you say you've always been an artist.
Mary Jameson: (01:55) I've always been an artist. I've always drawn. But I've also, anyone who knows me from my whole life knows how the ocean is sort of my thing, so I've always been inspired by the ocean. I've always loved the ocean. I grew up in Rhode Island. My dad was a naturalist. We did lots of going to the coast, identifying different types of fish, different types of mollusk. The environment, he's an environmentalist. So, that was something I grew up with. And Rhode Island being the ocean state, it's just, that's my environment.
Mary Jameson: (02:41) So when my son was small, I was not working in my studio like I had been doing anymore. It wasn't going to happen. But when he was like, say, I don't know, like three or four, I saw an exhibit of scrapbooks from the Victorian era. And they were here at the Newport Historical Society. And basically, when people came to summer here in Newport, they had these scrapbooks, and they would just document their summer in different ways. They would write poetry, some letters to their friends. They'd do watercolors. Nature art was in vogue during the Victorian era. So, there were flower pressings in there. And because they were at the ocean, they pressed seaweed. And I had never seen the seaweed pressed like that before even though it's been done for science for a very long time, but I had never seen it.
Mary Jameson: (03:36) And where we were going, to Third Beach here in Middletown, which is right at the mouth of the Sakonnet River so it's a great beach to take little kids, but it also is a great beach. It funnels in right before the Sakonnet River shoots out to the Atlantic. So, a lot of seaweed kind of is collected there. And so, I was seeing all this seaweed, and I thought, I never thought, it's so beautiful. So, I went down just to learn. So, that's my process into working with seaweed.
Mary Jameson: (04:10) So, I've always had this relationship with the ocean. It's very, very important to me. I could never live away from it. But to actually work with the materials from the ocean has just been... As soon as I made the pressings, it just resonated with me. I loved it. And I was very excited to sort of understand how to do it, work with different species, work with different papers, just figure out how to make work with it. And friends and family saw the work, and they wanted some for their homes. And I thought, "Well, let me just see, is this an art form? I know it's like sort of a craft form, but can it also be an art form?"
Mary Jameson: (04:56) So anyways, I started bringing my work just to our farmer's market and having framed art and prints and whatnot, pressings, I should say, original pressings. And slowly from there, the community started to learn about me and my work. I had some people respond. It was always received very well. Woops. I have a big sliding garage door here, and that's open. So, is that distracting? Can you hear that, or should I-
Pam Ferris-Olson: (05:31) I did hear that, but we're all right.
Mary Jameson: (05:33) Okay. All right. So basically from there, I just worked with seaweed as my medium.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (05:44) I love the idea that in the Victorian era, before TV, before the internet, that people were inspired to express their voice and do that by journaling and picking things off the beach. That's lovely.
Mary Jameson: (06:04) Yes. As a matter of fact, I'm just going to go over here and grab something that I want to show you. So since I started working with the seaweed, and people do ask me how I got involved, and that's exactly how I got involved, but I always make reference to it. So, I started looking for artifacts for scrapbooks. They're very, very hard to find, but I did manage to get a scrapbook from the Victorian era that is pressed seaweed, and it's in very delicate shape usually. So, here it is. And the cover of it is a-
Pam Ferris-Olson: (06:51) Shell.
Mary Jameson: (06:52) Shell, it's a shell. And so basically, just to give you an example of how decorative, so if you can see that.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (07:01) Oh, yes.
Mary Jameson: (07:03) That's seaweed and shells to make a decoration, almost like a flower. And then in here, it's writing, and it's from 1907. It's dated. And it's from the Puget Sound so it's from Seattle. But sea mosses, and that was what they referred to it as. So, there's loose little pages in here, and each page has a pressed seaweed from the early 1900s. So basically, I'm very happy to have this artifact because I show it when I give talks. And it's just wonderful.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (07:38) You stand upon the shoulder of the man or woman that created that.
Mary Jameson: (07:44) Yes. And you know what? On the other side of the shell, on the other cover, it's dedicated to a woman from a stranger. So, I think a man made this and gave it as a gift, and men did get involved and men did make the pressings, and there's a lot of poetry about seaweed. There was a nice awareness about it, and it meant something. It was important. It was beautiful and delicate.
Mary Jameson: (08:14) Another reason that during the Victorian era that nature art was in vogue is because it was believed that the hand of God was in nature. So, you could commune. You could go out to the fields. Women could go out there unchaperoned. They could go down to the ocean. They were communing with God. And it was thought of as a high level of being, of your mind, that that was of your mindset. So, it was accepted. And so, it was a lot of freedom. It helped women be a little more emancipated in terms of not having to have chaperones accompany them. And nature wasn't this terrifying place. It actually was a holy place. So that, yeah.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (09:00) And the person that created that shell that has inspired you probably didn't have any idea the kind of ripple effect that it would have.
Mary Jameson: (09:11) I know.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (09:12) So, in taking that as a point to my question, how is what you do an expression of you?
Mary Jameson: (09:23) Yes. Well, like I said, since COVID, I've actually heard from people from my past, from college days. People are just sort of reaching out and connecting again, and it's been wonderful. And after I graduated from college, I had a friend who was a marine scientist, and he was working on a sailboat in the Virgin Islands. So, I went down. It was a charter boat, and he was a scuba dive master so that was part of his thing. He could take people on his boat that weren't certified. But because they were with him, we were able to do diving. So, it was pretty great, and I got to do a lot of diving then too.
Mary Jameson: (10:11) So, he connected, and now he's seeing the artwork after all these years. I haven't been in touch with him for years, and now, they're seeing the artwork. And he always said he's never... He could just see how comfortable I was when we were doing the dives and when I was out there on the boat. He knew me okay, but we didn't do that together in Miami where I went to college and where I met him. It was in the islands where then he could see just my relationship, and he just thought, "Wow, the ocean is, it's just," I don't know how to explain it. He could tell that it is visceral for me.
Mary Jameson: (11:02) So, basically, so being able to work here with seaweed as a medium, my process from the moment I get in my car to where I'm driving to the ocean or the beach or the rocks to collect my work, it starts from there. It's just I just feel so fortunate that I've manifested this life for myself. So basically, I go to the ocean to grab my seaweed, but I'm walking on the coast. I'm observing the nature on the shore, the birds. I'm seeing what's in season in terms of the fish and the seaweed. The seaweed is seasonal. So, I've learned that over time. And it's even different in the spring, the same type of seaweed changes throughout the summer and so I'm able to document that. I see scallops swimming by. I mean, it's just it's a very holistic experience to go out there and collect and come back, to come back to the studio. I also have to gather jugs of salt water because I need to work with saltwater when I'm working with the seaweed and making the original art.
Mary Jameson: (12:23) So, everything about it is just, it's a reflection of me, really. And so, that I'm able to have my hand, to have my artwork, working with nature, working with ocean, marine nature is it's just it really is my dream come true. So, I'm inspired. I'm inspired. Go ahead.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (12:53) Do you have one piece that you might like to share with me that-
Mary Jameson: (12:57) Oh, I know. I was thinking about that, and yes, I do. I have one piece that I would share even though there's a few pieces that came to mind. But I wanted to share this piece with you. And basically, I don't know if you can see the whole thing.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (13:16) Yeah, it's easier when the light's not on it.
Mary Jameson: (13:20) When the light's not on it, okay.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (13:22) Right, like that. That's perfect. Yes.
Mary Jameson: (13:24) So, this piece is a multi-layered printing process. Let me just say it like that. So basically, last year, I started working with cyanotype, and cyanotype is a process. I'll get another example so you can see. Cyanotype is a process where-
Pam Ferris-Olson: (13:49) Oh, I like that one, yes.
Mary Jameson: (13:50) Yep, you coat the paper with light... It's two chemicals. They're non-toxic chemicals. They're basically iron salts, different components of iron salts. So, there's two that you have to... You get the crystals. You mix them in water, and then those solutions, you have to mix together. And you coat them on. Once you coat them on the surface of paper or fabric, they make the surface... It becomes light sensitive. So, you can put dried seaweed or objects or whatever on top, and you put it... In the summer, I'm able to go outside and put it under the sunlight. In the winter, I use my dark room. And then wherever was covered, acts as a resist. So basically, this is the process that starts.
Mary Jameson: (14:46) So, I have a collection of dried seaweed that I work with for that beginning process. And then once I get the shapes that I like, which are random and I never know what I'm going to get, once I get it, that impression, I go through the seaweed pressing process where... So, I soak the paper in saltwater, and then I collage fresh seaweed on top of it, and I make, yeah. So, this dual process, so you get the blue color works wonderfully with... You get these impressions of, say, rockweed or whatever you put behind there. And so this combination has been... I thought about it for a while, and I was able to work on it last year. And so, I love working in this format. And could I share another one with you?
Pam Ferris-Olson: (15:46) Sure.
Mary Jameson: (15:47) Okay. So basically, another thing that I was thinking about, and one silver lining for me with COVID has been that normally, my summer is booked I'd say from June into September for sure and then into the holiday season with shows. And I have shops that carry my work so I'm very busy all summer. And everything was canceled for me except for one show that I did. So, I've been able to be in my studio working on these ideas that I've been thinking about for a while. So in that same process of sort of doing the cyanotype, this is a process now where I've done the cyanotype, and this is a piece of kelp. So, I've always wanted to work kelp because it's so beautiful and it's so unique, but it's hard to work with. It's long. It's leathery. I can't press it. It dries, and it gets brittle. So, I'm able to lay the kelp out and I can do a whole... Well, you can see one behind me here.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (17:04) Yes.
Mary Jameson: (17:05) Yep, so in some of the... So, what I've done with this particular one is I've gone back and I've painted in with the cyanotype chemicals and then laid some dried seaweed and put it back out into the sun. And I'm getting this dual-
Pam Ferris-Olson: (17:25) It looks very insect-like.
Mary Jameson: (17:27) Yeah. It looks insect, I mean, the rockweed has this wonderful pattern. It's different shades of blue. It makes it dimensional, kind of pushes the background into a very... It's not defined. It recedes, and then this is bright and colorful, and this comes forward so you get... There's a lot of things happening there. So, I love the fact that I'm able to work with that type of seaweed as well, so.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (17:58) So, what would you like people to take away from your work for themselves or what you're trying to say to them?
Mary Jameson: (18:07) Yeah. So, what I would like people to take away of course is the same feeling of what got me started. And it's basically looking at seaweed in a different way. And seaweed also becomes a platform for the environment, for nature, for being more observant in your surroundings. So and I have had many people come back over the years and just say, "Oh, I went down to the beach today. I thought of you. I looked in the water. There was seaweed. And I was actually looking at the different types. And there was a lot of different types. It didn't seem like there was, but there are." And I'll get emails from people that are traveling, well, traveling in boats and traveling over to Europe and wherever. And I'll get pictures of the seaweed that they're seeing over there. So, that's incredibly rewarding to me to actually have my work affect them so they're noticing their own environment with more depth.
Mary Jameson: (19:27) And another thing is, especially with children, with kids, kids will come to me and say... Actually, I was set up on Third Beach. I do that. Sometimes, I bring all my stuff down, and I'll do my pressings right at the shore just because it's lugging but it's actually a little bit easier. And I'm outside so sometimes I do that just to mix it up. And I had some little girls come up to the table and say, "Oh, my gosh, where did you get that seaweed? It's so pretty. Look at that red seaweed. I didn't know we had that seaweed." And I just said, "Girls, turn around." And so, we all walked down. They were with their grandmother. We walked down to the shore, and I said, "Look, this is where I got it." And they were so happy. They went on their way, but they were looking at the seaweed, picking it up. So, that's incredibly rewarding to me.
Pam Ferris-Olson: (20:21) I'm very grateful to you for sharing this with me, with all the listeners. It's been very informative, and I love what you do. Thank you.
Asset ID: 2020.01.02
Themes: Women Mind the Water, conservation, artists, COVID, history, Victorian-era, nature
Date recorded: August 28, 2020
Length of recording: 20:34 m
Related traveling exhibition: Water/Ways
Sponsor or affiliated organization: Women Mind the Water
More information: https://womenmindthewater.com/