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Seaweed Stories 2020

Updated: Nov 16, 2021

We are excited to introduce one of our collaborating artists- Cornwall based Jo Polack, who creates a variety of ocean inspired artworks. This following article is based around her recent project 'SeaweedStories 2020' and how seaweed inspires her artistically and scientifically. There is also mention of her work with the continuous plankton recorder survey.

What is SeaweedStories 2020? Jo’s Seaweed Stories is a collection of seaweed based/inspired artworks. The following is an excerpt from Jo’s Instagram (@jopolack1) describing the project. See the whole interview here and check out the webinar Jo and her "seaweed sister", marine biologist Angie Gall, hosted in November 2021.

“SeaweedStories is what I've come to call this 2020 journey deeper into my beloved local shoreline ecosystem (not just a random artwork naming because I'm a sucker for a bit of alliteration). It’s been an unexpected adventure - an essential characteristic of all classic stories. It has many intertwining threads; stories of following treasure as it presents itself along the path, responding to intrigue and curiosity, learning from and with other humans, learning many lessons from nature, stories of the seaweed itself, of the process of gaining knowledge, of understanding more about each species and its place in its habitat, the stories of my attempts to do justice to its beauty through my creativity.

I guess I see myself as the protagonist on this path but the real heroine is algae!”

Jo Polack in her St Agnes Studio Gallery

Jo’s journey of ‘Seaweed stories 2020’ began in February 2020. Wading in her local cove’s cool rock pools admiring seaweed to then taking home samples to explore under her microscope. Along with her was her friend Angie (a marine biologist by training and a seaweed lover too) who helped bring a scientific perspective to Jo's artistic one. She and Angie would exchange seaweed samples in tubs on each other's doorsteps as a way of maintaining connection during lockdown. She referred to the process that followed as "Identifying Together Apart". As an ode to those she forged closer connections to (even internationally) during this seaweed journey, she favours the term ‘seaweed sisters’. Especially since science historically is rather male dominated, with women able to get their foot into seaweed sciences slightly easier than other sciences ‘with their long skirts swishing in the tide pools!’ (to quote Jo).

Translating sketchbook to Textile Art: Work in Progress at Jo Polack Studio Gallery

The art-science integration was not the only factor at play in creating seaweed stories- Jo states that the context (in this case, the pandemic) of why you're actually creating has a key

role. Being at home and needing to simplify creations away from Jo’s typically multilayered process was another element to the progression of ‘Seaweed Stories’ whereby Jo began painting and drawing what she saw on excursions to her local cove.

Here are some snippets from the interview with Jo. If you would like to watch the whole interview, you can find it here.

How did your love and connection with seaweed begin? Well, I suppose, it actually started quite a long time ago. I think there are two points of reference in my past I can remember seaweed suddenly going PING! One is the west coast of Scotland. I was at uni when I did my first degree (literature) and the west coast of Scotland has beautiful seaweeds and beautiful shorelines full of seaweeds like we do here in Cornwall. And so, I guess that was an initial kind of trigger. The next was in Porthgwarra, here in Cornwall, and I just noticed, what I now know to be, a tiny little frond ofCallophyllis (red seaweed) floating against the shell work and the blondie sand colour- it just really zinged! I think that was the moment I lost my heart to seaweed.

Shoresearch 2020' Jo Polack, Pen and Ink. Created whilst surveying her local cove with Cornwall Wildlife Trust's citizen science project 'Shoresearch Cornwall'.

Do you think what attracted you most was the beauty or the science of it or both? Yeah, initially when I described seeing that red floating, I would say that's wholly just the view- the stunning beauty of the seaweed floating and the translucency of it. I’ve always been interested in learning about my observations in nature but I would say definitely this last year, the science aspect of it has come to the forefront in terms of seaweed but it has always been there the last decade.

What have you learnt whilst carrying out SeaweedStories 2020? I've artistically learned about simplification. My drawing and painting is a side of me that previously has not really been unleashed. I've always used it as a tool to quickly do designs for textile art, but very quickly got onto the textile art, seeing myself as a maker and a creator. I suppose, SeaweedStories has really made me look closer and want to draw, play with scale [i.e.] what I'm seeing is close-up [with my microscope], then blowing that up big so that it becomes large drawings and paintings. Pieces of seaweed that might have been might've been a centimeter or two centimeters in width, then I look down the microscope and suddenly I'm wanting to paint that on an A2 or bigger piece of paper. Blowing it out a little bit more as if to say ‘this stuff is incredible and we need to look after it and its habitat’. Sometimes we all need a kind of falling in love or

a shock moment to make us go ‘that really needs to be loved and cherished and looked after’. I think that goes hand in hand, for me, with the artwork that comes from that scientific process. Hopefully other people have that reaction and go on to take a bit more time or thought about the natural world. You can look down this scope and work out what it is, why it's different which gives me a better understanding of what I'm looking at but also a better understanding of its ecosystem. Then by identifying them, you get to know about their behavior (for want of a better word) but what they need, what they give to the ecosystem and their habitat in general. It’s therapeutic as it makes you slow down and in slowing down, you gain a greater appreciation of just how many levels of an ecosystem there are, whether you're looking at the local rock pool ecosystem or our planet earth ecosystem.

Jo Polack’s recently completed 'Taonia and friends'

What’s your favourite artistic method? It's really hard. It's like picking your favourite ice cream! Part of the reason why I think I've got to where I am is because I've embraced the fact that I am not one particular. It's partly where [all my methods] are combined, so the drawing and the painting physically become, worked into the textiles themselves, or they inspire different layerings that I wouldn't have thought of. I think textiles is where my heart is- when I'm sewing and I've created all the different layers, there's a real kind of meditation. There’s a hard work bit but there’s a flow. I do free machine embroidery, which I call ‘drawing with a needle and thread’. They're often multilayered with a sheer layer over the top and I love reusing materials- like shiny foils. So, working in a way that is bringing those other materials up to the surface - I really love that process. It's very much like swimming and being in the rock pools.

Could you share how you keep the creation of your artworks sustainable? I guess, with my previous career being with environmental organisations and lots of environmentally driven community art projects. It's just second nature to find ways of reusing. So, the foils [people send me from their Easter eggs] has become a baseline for awful lots of work.

I think a lot of artists have an environmental leaning or an awareness but the actuality of it is quite challenging. I used to work a lot in the woods and all of that would therefore be natural materials, which you knew would break down. So that was a no brainer. Then with working more studio-based and creating pieces that you want to last- one of those aspects of sustainability is making a piece of work that's going to last to give people pleasure for, for generations. So, I reuse lots like sweet wrappers, but also I will reuse every single scrap of material that I have. Even all the threads where I've been sewing, I'll collect all the threads that I cut off and that will be reused and put onto starch dissolvable fabric, and I’ll sew it into textile art like for plankton and mackerel. On the more commercial side- packaging and suppliers, all go into the whole process of sustainability. Obviously, you are buying some supplies, it's about choosing your suppliers as environmentally and sustainably as you possibly can. And packaging, everything’s recycled (even my bubble wrap). One of the other big things is working with really good quality local print makers and framers.

Could you tell us about your collaboration with the Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey (CPR)? I had a moment when I was swimming in the Cove 3/4 years ago, I suddenly went ‘we’re swimming basically in this invisible soup’. I love it! For other people that might feel a bit weird, but for me that was a real kind of like ‘wow, this is microscopic stuff you can't see with our naked eye and yet is vital to life on earth.’ Yet people will attribute that knowledge to rainforests.

Jo Polack aboard Atlantic Diver viewing Plankton Tow she has just pulled from the sea

So that [led to] a boat trip out of Newquay Harbor aboard the Atlantic diver which does lots of research for Cornwall Wildlife Trust such as plankton tows. Then, I was in touch with the Marine Biological Association that housed the continuous plankton recorder survey. So, I went up and spent several sessions in the lab with them, looking at the silks that came in from all over the globe and that in itself just blew my mind. They were really helpful at explaining things to a lay person.

Obviously, there were microscopes and it took me ages to get into. It's funny being an artist as when I first looked down and I was like “Ooh, I can see wavy lines!”. And she went “that's the silk”. It was just lovely having that time to be there and to check in on species and to build up a little bit of understanding about phytoplankton and the different areas where they exist. One of the things I loved there is that, which is another really nice art science crossover, is that they use the Pantone colour charts when they get heir plankton silks in as a reference point for color which gives them an indication of density of the phytoplankton in those areas, depending on where it's graded.

Textile artworks inspired by Jo Polack’s work with Continuous Plankton Recorder Survey

What came out of some of [the microscopy work in the laboratory] was some more 3D artworks out of wire and stitch from where you're seeing things move and I'd look at them and I'd be going, ‘but it's flat’ and she'll say ‘oh, just go in a little bit further’.

Jo Polack’s 3D stitched Sillicoflagellate inspired by her microscopy in the Continuous Plankton Recorder laboratories

Do you think there is an intrinsic link between science and art? Do you feel connected to science? Yeah, I do. Interestingly, [science] is not something that I started out with. I switched from doing lots of community and environmental arts to focusing mainly on having an artist studio and getting on with making art. I suppose it's just inherent in me that those two things (art and science) are linked because of my kind of environmental concerns. So, I think they are linked. It’s obviously up to the individual artists and individual scientists as to where they see the crossovers being. I think both science and art are about looking closer and capturing and using your expertise to analyse or process or recreate. Then, of course, to share that new found expertise. I would say that kind of process matched journey is common and both have experiments with things that go wrong. You're learning all the time with both.

Artist and/or scientist? Jo Polack drawing whilst viewing Phytoplankton down the microscope at Continuous Plankton Recorder

Do you consider yourself a scientist? That's interesting, isn't it? Yeah, I would say no. I would say I’m an artist. I would find it hard to say that simply without caveats. I would hesitate to call myself a scientist, but I would say that I have an ever-increasing interest in science and what science means and how science helps us to understand the world and to do the right thing by planet. I wouldn't call myself a scientist, but I definitely feel connected to science and scientific processes and what can be gained by people in the world of science. Scientists or artists or people in between can encourage other people into those areas to learn more and to experiment themselves without feeling intimidated by it. Citizen science, which is now becoming the norm for lots of setups, is great. I enjoy being part of that like working with shore search crew [on the Atlantic diver] at the wildlife trust. For me as an amateur seaweed explorer, it has been really exciting learning names of species, and has reminded me that learning names can be a process of understanding not only of the species in the pool but its context in the ecosystem. However, I am always keen to say knowing or learning names of species for the sake of it is not necessary for the enjoyment and deeper understanding of nature. Nature speaks to all of us differently. We

can smell it, look at it, hear it, feel it, use all our senses to gain appreciation and understanding of it and the ecosystem it inhabits. Experiential and sensory counts for a lot. That too is 'science' and is exploration of the natural world.

And of course- What’s your favourite seaweed(s)? It is a really tough question because they’ve all got their beauty. One of the things that amazed me with seaweed was how they changed to the season. This is a lot of what I learnt through this last year of concentrating on seaweeds was the different phases of them, whether that's reproductive phases or how different they look in spring from how they look when they bleached in summer. I've fallen in love, particularly this year with Plocamium (cockscomb). That's the recent version of the Plocamium (on the right). The reason why it's called cockscomb is because it has branchlets and then off that it has the same repeating pattern getting smaller and smaller.

'Plocamium' (detail). From Jo Polack’s collection in progress inspired by Seaweed Stories 2020.

I've been loving comparing and contrasting different ones. Chondrus crispus (Carrageen) which you get on the coast of Cornwall has an amazing iridescence which just gets me every time. It blew my mind when Juliet Brodie, superb seaweed scientist from the Natural History Museum, showed it to me on a course down here (in Cornwall). That species often exists alongside the false Irish moss (Mastocarpus stellatus) which l love because it looks so different throughout the year. It shifts from a deep reddish to a green with all its little ‘grape pips’ later in the summer, then during this Seaweed Stories year I even discovered it’s flat black encrusting phase covering the rocks. And then I love the bright greens of the sea lettuce (Ulva), particularly contrasting with the pinks! There are those nursery rhymes like ‘blue and green should never be seen, without another colour in between’ but I think pink and green should always be seen- It’s just got a fantastic kind of ZING!

Get to know Jo better and support her work:

You can visit Jo and her artwork at her studio: Jo Polack Studio Gallery, Peterville, St Agnes Cornwall TR5 0QU

You can buy some of her artworks and products at:

And be sure to follow her on Instagram @jopolack1

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