On Salt, Seaweed, and Disappearing Places

By Susan Hoffman Fishman

California-based artist, writer, and researcher Christina Conklin grew up spending summers along the coast of Oregon where she first developed a relationship with and understanding of the ocean as “an infinite vessel” of ever-changing and interconnected living systems. For the last 12 years, her artwork has explored the intersection of art, science, and spirituality as it relates to the sea. 

Conklin’s career path prior to her current focus as an artist and writer on the ocean in the context of the climate crisis, included work in the publishing and non-profit sectors, after which she became a full-time textile artist and freelance writer. Acknowledging her background in textiles, she admits that all of her artwork has what she calls “textility,” an inherent textural quality. It also incorporates her long-time interest in spirituality and philosophy, which she attributes to her background as an undergraduate religious studies major at Middlebury College in Vermont. 

Apophacy, glass vessel, hanging wire, 12 gallons of water, 8 pounds of salt, 13 ft. diameter, 2014

From 2012-2014, during her MFA program at California College of the Arts, Conklin created process-based, ephemeral works that combined scientific experimentation with artmaking and contemplative practice. For these pieces, she used salt and water as her primary media, which she applied directly onto the floor. In Apophacy (see photo above), for example, the salt and water mixture created a rough, almost bubbly surface, like a primordial mix, thick in some areas and thin in others. From above, the floor-based installation had a globe-like appearance, suggesting bodies of water and land formations. Its title references a theological term for â€œthe ineffable nature of that which could be called sacred and the unsaying of all the words that so often fail to approach its description.”

Included as part of Conklin’s work is a social practice component, consisting of guided walks for students and adults titled Tideline as Timeline, and other public engagement projects. The walks speak to the tideline as a fluctuating border, documenting the geological, social, and historical changes that have occurred over thousands of years. In one of these projects, Conklin collaborated with sustainability expert and writer Marina Psaros, who has worked on sea level rise planning for decades. When Psaros was approached by The New Press to write a book on the oceans and climate change, she suggested that Conklin partner with her, a process which ultimately occupied the next four years of their lives and resulted in the publication in 2021 of The Atlas of Disappearing Places: Our Coasts and Oceans in the Climate Crisis.” In addition to researching and writing 12 of its 20 chapters, Conklin created all of the book’s numerous maps and illustrations.

From the beginning, Conklin imagined that The Atlas of Disappearing Places would include both science and art, and would take a systemic look at the impact of the climate crisis on our coasts and oceans all over the world. Prior to writing, Conklin conducted extensive research on such topics as deep-sea mining, the micro-chemistry of the ocean, marine biology, ocean currents and flow patterns, and numerous other factors causing changes in ocean life and behavior. 

Using an atlas format, which traditionally contains a collection of maps as well as relevant cultural, geographical, and historical facts about specific areas, countries, or continents, the co-authors organized their information into four parts representing the four major categories of ocean changes: stronger storms, warmer waters, chemical changes, and higher sea levels. Under each category, they selected five places around the globe where these changes are impacting ocean species, human life, and local geography. Although some of the twenty case studies address cities that are very familiar to readers, such as New York and Shanghai, others are less well-known and less urban places like Kutupalong Refugee Camp, Bangladesh; Hampton Roads, Virginia; and Ben Tre, Vietnam. 

Spilhaus Projection, ink on algae, 43” x 32,” 2021

Conklin used sea lettuce (as seaweed from the genus Ulva is commonly called) and a unique process to create the stunning maps appearing throughout the book, which illustrate how specific changes in the climate are affecting particular areas. Living close to the sea as she does and with a history of making ephemeral works, she had already started using local sea lettuce in her own work and thought that utilizing a product of the sea as a way of illustrating sea change would be especially powerful. She ultimately developed a time-consuming and delicate process that enabled her to paint maps onto dried seaweed. 

To begin with, Conklin harvested forty pounds of wet, slimy seaweed and dragged it back to her studio, where she washed it and lay out each individual sheet to dry. When bleached by the sun, the green seaweed was transformed into thin, translucent, highly brittle parchment. Using water soluble ink, she painted land formations and/or data sets onto the dried seaweed, letting the pooling and puddling effect of the ink occur naturally. Conklin called the process “a conversation with the material.” Once the painting was complete, most of the maps were digitally layered onto a Google Earth image to provide geographical reference points. By using the dried seaweed as the original surface of the artwork, the resulting maps take on Conklin’s own preference for “textility.” 

Sample map from The Atlas of Disappearing Places: Our Coasts and Oceans in the Climate Crisis, “Toxins in San Francisco Bay,” digital image, 8” x 10,” 2021

One of the most intriguing maps in the Atlas is modeled after the famous Spilhaus Projection (see image below), originally published in 1979 by South African geophysicist and oceanographer Athelstan Spilhaus. Spilhaus’ map of the world places the Earth’s axis through China and Argentina, enabling the oceans to be entirely contiguous with just a small “cut” across the shallow Bering Straits. The Spilhaus Projection provides a view of the sea that emphasizes its omnipresence and global importance. 

The Spilhaus Projection map showing the blue oceans as contiguous. 

The Atlas of Disappearing Places has been well received as a creative and accessible reference book on climate change that is particularly appropriate for schools and libraries. Now that her four-year “calling to get the word out” is complete, Conklin has turned to another natural material for art-making – she is creating algae mono-prints in a way that “allows the material to have the loudest voice,” in much the same way that her seaweed paintings did. Most importantly to her, however, is her continued spiritual search with like-minded individuals and groups for a systemic transformation of our collective thinking, a new paradigm that will put us back in sync with the natural environment and all of its living beings. 

(Top image: Skin #9, algae, insect pins, 60” x 62,” 2021)

This article is part of Imagining Water, a series on artists of all genres who are making the topic of water and climate disruption a focus of their work and on the growing number of exhibitions, performances, projects and publications that are appearing in museums, galleries and public spaces around the world with water as a theme.

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Susan Hoffman Fishman is a painter, public artist and writer whose work has been exhibited widely in museums and galleries throughout the U.S. Since 2011, all of her paintings, installations and photographs have addressed water and the climate crisis. Her most recent work, called In the Beginning There Was Only Water is a visual reframing of the biblical creation myth. In 39 panels, it speaks to the importance and beauty of all living beings and what we stand to lose as a result of climate change. She recently participated in an artist’s residency at Planet, an international company providing global satellite images, where she focused on the proliferation of sinkholes caused by climate change. 

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Artists and Climate Change is a blog that tracks artistic responses from all disciplines to the problem of climate change. It is both a study about what is being done, and a resource for anyone interested in the subject. Art has the power to reframe the conversation about our environmental crisis so it is inclusive, constructive, and conducive to action. Art can, and should, shape our values and behavior so we are better equipped to face the formidable challenge in front of us.

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