Celeste Roberge became enamored of seaweed during a residency in Nova Scotia in 2008. While visiting Hirtle’s Beach in Kingsburg, Roberge encountered Agarum clathratum, notable for its distinctive perforations. She gathered some specimens, brought them home to study, and began her feats of transformation.
Over the past fifteen or so years Roberge has explored seaweed’s aesthetic possibilities through photography (including cyanotypes), drawings, and sculpture, not to mention actual pieces of marine algae, dried and mounted in mixed-medium pieces. In each case she asked herself a series of questions, starting with, “How can I use the seaweed and keep its power?”
In 2021, Roberge relates, she wrote the phrase “Women of the Gulf of Maine” in her sketchbook “beneath a dozen tiny ink drawings of female seaweed figures—no faces, no limbs— just a vertical curling and curving of shapes reaching up from their holdfasts.” A kind of eureka artistic moment occurred, the genesis idea for a remarkable series of bronze figures made over the past two years.
In an act that Ovid, author of the Metamorphoses, would have celebrated, Roberge transformed different specimens of seaweed into mythical female creatures. They emerge from what the artist describes as the “primordial chaos” of wet weed and wax to become bronze beings. Like Apollo watching Daphne become a laurel tree, we are mesmerized by the conversion.
Each figure takes on the trappings of its seaweed origins. The bodies can be ragged, bumpy, svelte, curly, pocked, perforated. Roberge emphasizes particular anatomical elements in each one, suggesting wings, feet, facial features, hair, and buttocks. The tallest one, the armless 32-inch-tall #17, is at once regal and wonderfully misshapen, balanced on a tangle of root-like stems.
The tapered verticality of some of the Gulf of Maine women bring to mind Giacometti’s “femme” figures, but they also hark back to Roberge’s stack sculptures of 2005–06. Those earlier pieces consist of narrow stacks of materials, including stone, metal, and wood, topped by small toy chairs—manifestations of conceptual equilibrium.
With Women of the Gulf of Maine Roberge takes her seaweed adaptations to another level. “These small figures,” she writes, “are expressive of my desire to create new beings,” adding, “There is the urge and the demiurge—the creator deity.” Goddess-like, in an act of artistic alchemy, she turns weeds into wondrous women.
Image at top: Celeste Roberge, Women of the Gulf of Maine #6, cast bronze, 11 x 4 x 2.5 in., 2022.