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This Artist's Medium: Seaweed

Using plants washed up on the beach as her medium, Inverness artist Lina Prairie weaves eerily beautiful creations.

SLIDESHOW

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Lina Prairie began collecting seaweed during daily beach walks and weaving it into baskets and sculpture. Now a full-time artist, she’s participating in Inverness Open Studios in late November.

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Her studio is a storage space for materials and finished products, while the creative process takes place outside.

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A collection of Prairie’s woven baskets, which are made with bull kelp.

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Lina Prairie’s Inverness studio isn’t for making art, although it’s the site of prolific creation. Tools of her trade fill the shelves: poultry shears, old washrags, clothespins, rolls upon rolls of masking tape, and huge horse buckets filled with briny water. Completed pieces rest on tables and the floor. Yet Prairie has never worked a day inside this studio.

For more than 10 years, her practice has consisted of finding a shady spot beneath a tree, then weaving, winding, braiding, and knotting the fibrous strands of seaweed that wash in from the Pacific Ocean into baskets and sculptures. She’s among the 20 artists participating in Inverness Open Studios from November 23 to 25, when she’ll be welcoming visitors into her space from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. each day. However, Prairie always works outdoors. The cadence of creation fills her life completely—she walks the shore nearly every day, not just collecting seaweed but also meticulously measuring it and recording its dimensions and provenance in a handwritten diary. She carries large bags with her that she loads with sun-dried lengths of bull kelp, some as long as 20 feet. “I could carry 40 pounds when I started,” says Prairie, who just turned 70. Along with the kelp, she forages for rocks, shells, and tangled coils of polypropylene rope (used on fishing boats), which she either incorporates into artworks or stows away for locals who might find a use for it.

Prairie had a previous career as an elementary school teacher in San Pablo. But it came to an abrupt end after 40 years when the school district imposed early retirement on her and a handful of colleagues. She and her husband had already been spending weekends at their West Marin getaway and decided to make a full-time move. It was there, while strolling the shore near Point Reyes, that she became enamored of the deep-green and rust-brown plants she’d find washed up. She began collecting small pieces and trying to identify them. The result was a kitchen windowsill overflowing with dried scraps of kelp. “I just thought, I love this stuff, and I have to get working with it,” she recalls.

She began with simple, self-taught weaving techniques, learning about the finicky material as she went. She soon realized that she had to dry the kelp completely— sometimes for as long as 10 days in the sun— before resoaking it to make it pliable enough to work with. The finished pieces, all baskets at that point, would then be dried again, resulting in sturdy objects that would keep their shape and color for good. “I made every mistake, but I have learned how to make the most of this material,” Prairie says. Today, she still makes baskets, some more abstract than others, using various types of weaves. She also executes large-scale sculptures, including one—a just-completed private commission by a San Francisco couple—that measures 23 feet in diameter. The Bolinas Museum has some of her pieces, and seven of her works are on display at the Albany restaurant Juanita & Maude. Prairie says that the owners keep insisting on paying for them, but her response is always the same: “I don’t care about selling them. I like to sell, but I prefer creation.”

Prairie says she’s sworn off participating in craft fairs and the like. “I have no patience for standing around, having people troop past and hoping to sell something,” she says. She prefers the open studio model, wherein visitors can come to her studio and learn about her process. “This is a big chapter,” Prairie says. “It’s going to keep me going for the rest of my days.”

 

Originally published in the November issue of San Francisco

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