The ebb and flow of nature

Art and science meet in Kathy Poehler’s seaweed collage exhibit at the Oak Bluffs library.


Some artists take views of the sea and land as inspiration for their work. Kathy Poehler literally draws from the Island’s waters to create her beautiful seaweed collages, on exhibit at the Oak Bluffs library through the end of April.

Artistic since childhood, Poehler’s fascination with seaweed likewise began when she was young, as she tagged along with her father’s science class on their trips to the beach to collect specimens to classify and mount in the classroom at the Tisbury School.

Poehler left the Vineyard to pursue her interest in aquatic environments at Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. Later, while teaching early childhood classes at Harvard University, she created a curriculum bridging ocean science and art, thereby uniting her passions. “It was through teaching that I was able to move from science to the art,” says Poehler. Returning to the Island in 2010, Poehler is now a full-time artist, and thoroughly enjoys teaching those who view her artwork about the science behind it.

Poehler’s unusual “pigments” let her enjoy the Island’s riches. “The ocean is my happy place. I have always been most comfortable in and around the water, and this medium allows me to spend time on the shoreline collecting and observing the seaweeds’ movement in their natural state before returning to the studio.”

Algae are a fascinating medium. Kept moist in salt water, seaweed is only viable for a few days. Poehler needs them wet, though, to cut, tear, or layer the algae, which naturally adheres to the paper as it dries. The fibers of the paper interact with the seaweed’s own adhesive.

“The process of creating these images is as important to me as the finished work,” Poehler says. She creates about 20 to 25 pieces a year. Because seaweed is seasonal, she has to work with a limited palette at any given time. Sometimes Poehler creates an entire collage from what is in season all at once. At others, she lays down pieces over time as they become available, thereby stretching out the creation process over the course of many months.

Because it is a natural, living source, seaweed changes as it ages. Poehler discovered that it can also be quixotic every once in a while, such as when the brown seaweed she used in “Moon Fall” dried into a rich, deep purple. “For the most part, I’m self-taught. The more time I spent with the seaweed, the more I understood what each can give me,” she explains.

The brightness of the seaweed’s colors can also fade over time as it continues to evolve as part of its life cycle. “Like all living things, it mellows a little bit with age. But it’s so beautiful on its own. “

The collages are a mixture of fascinating textures. There is translucent seaweed that is so thin the area looks like watercolors, as you can see with the yellows and orangey reds in the background of “Tree Tops.” Substantial pieces of seaweed create the branches and add a physical dimension to the image.

“If I see something beautiful in the ocean, that’s my inspiration,” Poehler says of her medium. Her images range from purely abstract, such as the complex, swirling composition in “See You” with its mesmerizing layers of different warm-colored seaweeds. Many are pictorial, recognizable subjects, such as the landscape of Keith Farm on Middle Road in “Chilmark Watering Hole.” Then you have the lovely spare work “Among the Flowers,” where with careful gazing, you can make out little fairies flitting in and among the delicately rendered flowers.

Poehler says, “In my collages or ‘paintings,’ I’ve merged an understanding of the limitations of my medium with the possibilities for self-expression.”

And their resulting ethereal beauty makes them a treasure.

The exhibition is on view at the Oak Bluffs library through the end of April. During the art reception on April 20, from 1 to 3 pm, seaweed specimens with scientific information will be displayed, and visitors can experiment with some seasonal examples on provided watercolor paper. For more information or a studio visit, email, or call 508-560-3245.