Beauty and the Beach

For artist Josie Iselin, inspiration comes in waves

Artist Josie Iselin. Photo by Rachel Aston.

For ages, the splendor of the sea has been inspiring artists.

Orange-pink sunsets on watery ocean horizons. Frothy waves rhythmically pounding shell-strewn beaches. Endless strips of golden sand. Rotting heaps of dead algae.

Well, maybe not the algae... until now.

Marine algae – aka seaweed – is finally getting its due thanks to San Francisco-based photographer and designer Josie Iselin (M.F.A., ’94). Iselin’s newest book, “An Ocean Garden: The Secret Life of Seaweed” (Abrams, ’14), combines vivid images of giant kelp, surfgrass, Irish moss and other algae species with seaweed science and personal reminiscences.

According to Iselin, the book sprouted from a lifetime love of beachcombing.

“I grew up in New York City but spent my summers on the coast of Maine, where you spend a lot of time just roaming around the shore,” she says. “Then I moved to San Francisco in 1989, and I’ve been walking at Fort Funston regularly ever since.

Delesseria sanguinea seaweed, photo copyright 2014 Josie Iselin

Delesseria sanguinea, Britian, c.1880, University Herbarium, UC Berkeley. © Josie Iselin 2014

”Those long beach strolls near campus didn’t take center stage in Iselin’s art until after she’d completed her M.F.A. She and some friends she made at SF State chipped in together to buy a scanner to use in their artwork, and one day Iselin tried an experiment with it.

“Something inspired me to take the lint from my dryer and put it on the scanner, and I just loved what happened,” she recalls. “The level of detail I could achieve and the saturation of color and the fact that this object really got to speak for itself in a way that it couldn’t with a regular camera – it was so intoxicating.”

Image of Botryocladia pseudodichotoma, photo copyright 2014 Josie Iselin

Botryocladia pseudodichotoma, SEA GRAPES, Dana Point, Dec. 12, 2012 © 2014 Josie Iselin

Though she started with lint, Iselin eventually moved on to a slightly more exotic subject for her scanner experiments: rocks. That led to the 2006 book “Beach Stones,” which mixed Iselin’s surprisingly vibrant, detailed scanner images with text about small rocks collected from beaches around the world. More shorethemed books followed, including “Seashells” (Abrams, ’07) and “Beach: A Book of Treasures” (Chronicle Books, ’10).

It was while collecting material for that last book that Iselin discovered the hidden beauty of marine algae.

“I was out on a reef and held a scrap of seaweed up to the sky and saw this incredible color and this amazing form,” she says.

Not long afterward, Iselin began focusing all her efforts on seaweed, collecting specimens during her long beach walks. Some she scanned immediately, others she stored in her refrigerator or dried in a press.

“The key to keeping the specimens fresh is to keep them cold,” she says. “My kids thought it was weird when the fridge was half full of seaweed and half full of food. They think I’m a little crazy, but they get really excited about these books. They’re actually my biggest fans.”

Image of Cryptopleura ruprechtiana, Cryptopleura violacea, Hymenena flabelligera, Fucus distichus, Duxbury Reef. Bolinas, May 8, 2009. photo copyright 2014 Josie Iselin

Cryptopleura ruprechtiana, Cryptopleura violacea, Hymenena flabelligera, Fucus distichus © 2014 Josie Iselin

They’re far from Iselin’s only fans, though. Her work has been exhibited in galleries throughout California and New England. Audubon magazine called the images in her latest book “beautiful” and “breathtaking.” And Iselin has admirers on campus too.

“Josie Iselin’s photographs have an uncanny brightness about them — as if the sea had decided to shout out a welcome for our inquisitive eyes,” says Mark D. Johnson, professor of art and gallery director at SF State. “Her work extends a long lineage that began with pressing and drying plants to preserve and study them, popular with women during the Victorian era, and moves this practice into the 21st century with new and visually exciting impact.”

Josie Iselin’s "An Ocean Garden: The Secret life of Seaweed,"

Josie Iselin’s "An Ocean Garden: The Secret life of Seaweed," was published by Abrams in March 2014.

In the spring, Iselin gave a tour of her studio to undergrads studying under Professor of Art Lewis deSoto (whom Iselin says was a key influence during her M.F.A. days). Soon afterward, Iselin returned to campus to give a visiting artist lecture.

Through it all, she was basking in the success of “An Ocean Garden.” Though Iselin’s publisher initially turned the project down, her editors changed their minds after they saw the steady sales her earlier books were racking up. Now, Iselin says, “it’s getting more interest than any book I’ve ever done.” She credits that to a growing awareness of the health benefits of eating seaweed as well as an old-fashioned case of good timing.

“I came along at the right moment,” she says. “Up until recently, seaweed just elicited a ‘Pew!’ kind of response. But I knew all along that it would have its day.”




The SF State Alumni Hall Gallery presents the exhibit “Josie Iselin: An Ocean Garden” through July 2014, Administration Building, SF State, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.


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