‘She Who Speaks with the Ocean’

New Marion Wilson exhibit merges art with environmentalism.


Marion Wilson engages our senses and intellect in her new, immersive exhibition at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum that, through sights and sounds, beautifully interweaves art, ecology, and science into a thought-provoking experience.

COVID gave birth to the origin of Marion Wilson: “She Who Speaks with the Ocean.” Over the course of her daily walks here during the early days of the pandemic, Wilson saw a for sale sign on the houseboat anchored in Lagoon Pond just at the foot of the Museum. Turning this unique space into her art studio, Wilson soon became interested in water quality because this part of the Lagoon was contaminated. One thing led to another, and Wilson began reaching out to Vineyard scientists: shellfish biologist Emma Green-Beach, shellfish constable of Tisbury Danielle Ewart, and retired biology teacher and Aquinnah Wampanoag tribal member, Carole Vandal.

Wilson walks me through the gallery, saying about her experience, “I was inspired to do an exhibition that is at the intersection of painting and photography, which I know; community — which I’m interested in; and science.” These three main people with whom she happened to be speaking were all women, and thus the show’s title came to use the female pronoun.

Wilson’s relationship with nature feels organic, and she speaks of the influence of her friend Robin Kimmerer, author of the book “Braiding Sweetgrass.” Wilson explains, “She helped me understand what she would consider a more indigenous viewpoint in relationship to the landscape — that we are equals and it is a relationship of reciprocity.”

Walking through the show together, we first stop at her luminous watercolors of Vandal playing the flute while standing ankle-deep in the water. The sound of waves, Vandal’s music, and her speaking about our interconnectedness with the water, fill the gallery space with ambient calm.

Next, Wilson shows me a curious wooden box, which, lid raised, I see is filled with a wild assortment of keychains in all shapes, sizes, and materials that afford entry to private beaches on the Vineyard. Some of the keys, which are owned by one family, were purchased while several memberships have been passed down for generations. Without access to some of these coveted spots myself, I perhaps have one reaction to this piece while others might have quite another. For Wilson, these artifacts speak to a different kind of relationship to the water than that represented by Vandal. Wilson says, “This raises the question about who swims where, privacy, power, and exclusivity. Although there is also the argument of conservation and preservation.” She points to a Kimmerer quote in the accompanying label, “We set ourselves up as arbiters of what is good when often our standards of goodness are driven by narrow interests, by what we want.”

The next relationship Wilson reveals is in a vertical work made of two stacked paintings.  “Learning to Swim,” is a collaboration in a sense with artist, seasonal Vineyard resident, and octogenarian Martha Mae Jones who was just, after coming here for over 30 years, learning how to swim. The top portion is an abstract watercolor inspired by the lane lines at the bottom of the pool in the Mansion House where Jones was taking lessons. Underneath is Jones’ haiku poem, which Wilson transcribes on top of a fluid wash background that in one stanza refers to Wilson’s houseboat on the Lagoon:

“The houseboat is proud. 
To the house the artist within 
Who paints from her dreams.”

In the corner is what looks like a science lab. There are three substantial glass filter feeders containing different microalgae that come from the Martha’s Vineyard Shellfish Group (MVSG), an organization responsible for propagating shellfish for the different Island ponds and keeping them in balance. Referring to the translucent jugs, Wilson tells me that this is the food that gets fed to the baby scallops, the shells of which sit nearby in a shallow container. She shares, “I love collaborating with scientists and some of what they do I respond to visually and they don’t do it for that reason.” Nearby are renderings Wilson did of the filtration bags and spawning dishes, reminiscent of scientific illustrations. They are mounted on an enormous wall mural — a digital, underwater photograph of one-millimeter, five-week-old scallop seeds.

Also on the wall are four close-up photographs of algae that come from bodies of water Wilson swam in during her youth. She says of revisiting them for “Waters of My Childhood,” “Twenty-five percent of the lakes were no longer swimmable, or they had algae blooms,” the label reads. “Algae can be vital to growing healthy shellfish populations … but it can also become harmful when an excess of nitrogen, increased sunlight, and warmer water temperatures form algae blooms, which harm the ecosystem.”

Wilson creates another inventive intersection of art and ecology in her installation, “Ponds of Martha’s Vineyard.” Atop is a large, beautiful, cool-hued watercolor of the Island with all its major ponds delineated. Underneath she uses a type of netting used to hold and grow young shellfish to stencil six of the ponds on plain white backgrounds. With the help of local quahog fisherman Billy Sweeney, and Ewart, Wilson devised a color-coded key, sporting various colored dots to indicate the different types of fish and shellfish present in each body of water.

Finally, straight ahead in the nook before you leave the gallery, is “Color Chart of the Lagoon.” Here, Wilson has hung on the floor-to-ceiling netting a multitude of tags in alluring shimmering blues — ultramarine, indigo, cerulean, sevres, phthalo, and paynes gray — inspired by the Lagoon water at different times of day.

Empty tags hanging on the netting covering the adjacent wall are there for us to express how we relate to the water. This invitation to weigh in ourselves parallels Wilson’s appeal for us to consider our relationship to nature at a time when extreme climate change threatens ecosystems, livelihoods, and communities at large — and here at home.

Marion Wilson: She Who Speaks with the Ocean runs through May 7 at the Martha’s Vineyard Museum.