Martha’s Vineyard to celebrate late Rose Treat

The life of the late Rose Treat, shown here outside her Sengekontacket home in 2010, will be celebrated Saturday, June 9, at Polly Hill Arboretum. — Photo by Louisa Gould

Family, friends and admirers will gather at 10 am on Saturday, June 9, at West Tisbury’s Polly Hill Arboretum to honor the late Rose Treat.

Ms. Treat, who died at 102 on November 2, 2011, turned seaweed into a unique form of collage art, gathering it from the Island’s shores, arranging it into imaginative shapes, and mounting it.

Family members have already begun to gather for the upcoming celebration. Ms. Treat’s sister Laura Lohman has arrived with her husband Maurice Lohman from Charlottesville, Va., and is busy sorting through Ms. Treat’s papers and belongings. Ms. Treat’s brother, Norbert Ehrenfreund, a retired judge from the California superior court, will attend the Saturday event and act as moderator.

Ms. Lohman reminisced last week about her older sister, an expert in making hooked rugs and collecting mushrooms, as well as seaweed. Examples of Ms. Treat’s rugs and mushroom photographs will be on display Saturday, as well as her seaweed collages.

“My mother had seven children,” Ms. Lohman explains. “Rose was the first, and I was the last.” The age difference spans 20 years, and Rose left home to attend nursing school at Mt. Sinai Hospital in New York when Ms. Lohman was very young.

After their parents died, the two sisters became close friends, and Rose served as a surrogate mother for her younger sibling. Ms. Lohman’s son Steve, an artist who lives in West Tisbury, was also close to his aunt. They exhibited together several years ago.

“Rosie didn’t just take them up casually,” Ms. Lohman said of her sister’s seaweed collection. “She studied them and won awards in everything she did.”

That includes one from the Northeast Algal Society, which honored her in 2007 as a Friend of Phycology for her more than 50 years of contributions as an amateur seaweed collector. Phycology is the technical term for the scientific study of seaweed. According to Dr. Morgan Vis of Ohio University, the award was established for Ms. Treat, and no one else has yet been named a recipient.

Several years before she died, Ms. Treat described in an interview how she came to collect seaweed. “I was very ill,” she explained. “I was in and out of hospitals four times, and I got terribly depressed.”

She was thinking she should divorce her late husband, the mystery writer Larry Treat, because, “It wasn’t fair to him to have a sick wife.” Then Mr. Treat had lunch with a friend who told him about Martha’s Vineyard.

“I had never even heard of it,” Ms. Treat said. She told her husband, “I think it would be fun to live on an island.” The year was 1959, and David Flanders rented them a Gay Head cottage for $30 a month.

“I absolutely loved it,” she said. “I jumped up and hugged David. He was so embarrassed.”

That August was the first time Ms. Treat took note of the shoreline’s seaweed. “I looked at it and thought it was just beautiful. I discovered if I put paper under it, I could push it around with a toothpick,” she said.

The next year the couple stayed two months, and a few years later, they moved permanently to the Island, after building a down-Island house overlooking Sengekontacket Pond. It became their home for the next 50 years.

Wearing rubber boots and carrying a rake, Ms. Treat visited many different parts of the Island in a hunt for rare and unusual seaweed. “I never went to the beach without my plastic bag. The first thing I did is put a stone in the bag so if it happened to come out of my hand, I still had it.”

“I got to know the Island very well,” she said. “In some places I’d ask permission. I used to make seaweed cards, and I used them as Christmas cards.” Her favorite collection points were Gay Head and Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs, where she swam as a member of the Polar Bears Club.

As was her want, Ms. Treat immersed herself in phycology, much as she once did in mycology, the study of mushrooms. She learned about the various species, their habitats, their seasons, sometimes sending samples to university professors for identification.

Eventually Ms. Treat decided it was time to put them on public display. She called up the organizers of the All-Island Art Show, held annually in Oak Bluffs, but was turned down.

“You can’t do that,” she was told. “It’s a ridiculous idiom. You have to use paint.” The next year Ms. Treat didn’t call first. She simply showed up with her collages and joined the other exhibitors. To the best of her knowledge, nobody had ever used seaweed as a medium for artwork before.

Since then, she had exhibits at the Woods Hole Marine Biological Laboratory, Barnard College, Harvard University, and the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, as well as galleries in New England and New York. Her collages are housed in a number of permanent collections and have traveled to Australia’s National Maritime Museum as part of the Smithsonian Institute’s Ocean Planet exhibit.

Ms. Treat appeared on national television twice and was featured in several magazines. In 1995 she published “The Seaweed Book,” a child’s introduction to learning about this alga species and its uses.

The Polly Hill Arboretum houses more than 300 of Ms. Treat’s collages in a room with temperature and humidity controls to preserve the fragile works. They are mounted on special, imported watercolor paper able to absorb the plants’ moisture and preserve their colors. Attendees who own Ms. Treat’s seaweed collages are encouraged to bring them to Polly Hill on Saturday for display at the one-day exhibit.

Celebration of the Life of Rose Treat, 10 am, Saturday, June 9, Polly Hill Arboretum, West Tisbury. Stories, art, music, toast to Rose; an exhibit of Rose’s seaweed collages. Submissions welcome and will be returned. Call 508-560-1141.