When Celeste Roberge restored the barn on her South Portland property in the early 2000s, she strengthened the foundation, poured cement floors, straightened the walls and made the whole thing sturdy and tight. It was out of necessity. Roberge made large-scale sculptures from heavy metal, stone and other materials, and required a workshop strong enough to support it.
“I did work big,” she said. “Not so much anymore.”
Today, the barn is filled with dozens of varieties of seaweed. There are long strands hanging to dry, delicate clumps rounded into balls and more piled on top of other things. It smells a little like the intertidal zone.
Over the past decade, and especially since her retirement from teaching at the University of Florida in Gainesville in 2016, Roberge has reduced the scale of her work, focusing on seaweed and algae as both the subject of her artistic investigations and her preferred material. Her solo exhibition, “Thinking While Walking Under the Sea,” is on view at Waterfall Arts in Belfast through Sept. 14, and she will have work in “Curious Nature: 2018 Alumni Triennial” at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, opening Friday. Last weekend, she was a featured speaker at the Maine Seaweed Fair in Rockland.
“The kind of sculpture I was doing is heavy, hard and physically demanding. I’m 67,” said Roberge, a 1979 graduate of what is now MECA. “I’m sort of segueing. I’m still making sculptures. I’m adapting.”
A prominent example of Roberge’s large-scale work is “Raising Cairn,” a welded steel and stone sculpture of a human figure in the process of rising up, at the Portland Museum of Art’s sculpture garden. It was installed 18 years ago as the first piece in the museum garden and recently relocated to another spot in the garden to make room for William Zorach’s newly installed 1932 bronze, “Spirit of the Dance.”
While her new work feels very different from her previous work, it’s all related. “Raising Cairn” is made with beach stones, which she collected near some of the same places she collects seaweed. She also points to a tall forged, welded steel abstract piece that she made in 1979 called “Blue Lips.” Looking at it today, she sees its resemblance to kelp. “I obviously was interested in seaweed forms even back then,” she said.
The roots of her interest in seaweed go back to her own youth, growing up near the ocean in Biddeford. The beginning of her recent passion dates to 2008, when she visited Nova Scotia, a longtime favorite destination. This visit followed a recent storm, and on the beach she walked were strewn leaf-shaped weeds known as sea lace or sea colander. It has a perforated form and grows in the subtidal zone, which means it’s almost always underwater until it washes up in a storm.
From those, she made a series of delicate sea lace boats and, through trial and error, learned to fabricate her boats in different metals, including iron and brass. She also created a series of large-scale cyanotypes, working with a master printmaker in Florida, and learned to draw with seaweed, using its pigments to make marks on paper. She presents her seaweed-themed work as photographs, prints, drawings, collage and sculpture, all of which are on view at Waterfall Arts. By incorporating images of her previous sculpture into her new work, she also has found a way to create decades-spanning dialogue among her art.
In a short time, Roberge become a leading national expert. She has spoken about working with seaweed from Maine to Florida, lectured about it at the Crystal Bridges Museum in Arkansas and researched and experimented with it with artist residencies in Maine, Wisconsin and Nova Scotia. Next year, she will travel to the Arctic for a residency that combines art and science.
For several years, she was part of a group called the Algae Collaborative, whose mission was to create public art using rockweed. The group has disbanded because of a lack of funding, but Roberge continues to work with the group’s co-founder, Jessica Muhlin, a marine biologist at Maine Maritime Academy in Castine.
Seaweed, she says, is just about all she thinks about. “I eat, live and breathe seaweed,” she said, offering a guest a seaweed treat from her kitchen. “It’s become a part of me. I dream seaweed.”
CELESTE ROBERGE’S “THINKING WHILE WALKING UNDER THE SEA”
WHERE: Waterfall Arts, 256 High St., Belfast
WHEN: On view through Sept. 14; Roberge will discuss her work at 7 p.m. Aug. 15
ALSO: Roberge’s work is part of “Curious Nature: 2018 Alumni Triennial” at the Institute of Contemporary Art at Maine College of Art, Portland, opening Friday
INFO: waterfallarts.org or celesteroberge.com
RELATED: In conjunction with its exhibition “Maine Eats,” the Maine Historical Society will offer as samples edible seaweed products as part of First Friday Art Walk, 5 to 8 p.m. Friday
ALSO: Susan Hand Shetterly discusses her new book, “Seaweed Chronicles: A World at the Water’s Edge,” at 7 p.m. Aug. 16 at Print: A Bookstore, 273 Congress St., Portland
Images courtesy of Celeste Roberge