What speaks to me

lynda hartiganThis piece first appeared in Connections, PEM’s member magazine, and is part of a series where our curators are asked to tell about a piece in the collection that intrigues them.

Inside Lynda Roscoe Hartigan’s house are seashells that she has collected from beaches all over the world. There are bags and bags of them, marked with the date and location of their discovery. As she tells her skeptical husband, she has plans for them some day.

“I love the ocean and the act of beach-combing. There is something mesmerizing about the activity of walking along the water’s edge and looking down,” says Hartigan, The James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director. “I think there is this compulsion to acquire some part of nature and keep it with you.”

She offers the observation as she stands before Island Bride, a life-sized figurative sculpture created from a mosaic of pink and white seashells. This unconventional wedding gown by Maine-based contemporary artist Brian White is a reinterpretation of a sailors’ valentine, a gift crafted from seashells that would have been presented to a loved one after a long voyage at sea.

“For whatever reason, throughout my career, I have been drawn to artists who have figured out how to do phenomenally different things with found materials,” says Hartigan. “The way this artist has discovered a new way to work with this tradition is very compelling to me. Instead of giving a loved one a sailor’s valentine, here, he has imagined the loved one.”

Brian White, Island Bride (detail), 2002. Steel, seashell composition marine epoxy, paint, jute, other materials. Peabody Essex Museum. Museum purchase. 2007 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Mark Sexton. On view at art gallery, Level 2.

Brian White, Island Bride (detail), 2002. Steel, seashell composition marine epoxy, paint, jute, other materials. Peabody Essex Museum. Museum purchase. 2007 Peabody Essex Museum. Photo by Mark Sexton. On view at art gallery, Level 2.

The gown’s arms are extended and welcoming, inviting the viewer to come closer. The flounce of the skirt, the cinched waist, the hint of a neck and the buxom profile all contribute to making the work very believable as a dress. Hartigan wishes she could try it on. But the steel and solid epoxy armature prevent the execution of her Pygmalion-like fantasy.

She notes how the intricate arrangement of the shells creates texture and pattern. To her, the work on the bodice resembles an elaborate interpretation of lace and the cowrie shells on the hem and sleeves suggest embroidery. She’s reminded of the floor-length gown that fashion designer Alexander McQueen famously made from razor-clam shells.

“The skill involved in making this is truly extraordinary,” says Hartigan. “In art, this extra element of obsessiveness and attention to detail really pushes something to a higher creative level, and I think that is what is happening here.”

She wonders aloud what professional cake decorators might think of the sculpted dress.

“It has a kind of frosting effect,” says Hartigan. “I could stand here and imagine a pastry tube being used almost like a paint brush.”

Growing up, Hartigan often listened to her father talk about his surgical practice at the dinner table. She did not follow in his footsteps as a doctor, but the conversations made an impression. “I’ve always had a fascination,” she says, “with what the hands can do.”

 Editor’s Note: Formerly PEM’s chief curator, Lynda Hartigan has just been appointed as The James B. and Mary Lou Hawkes Deputy Director. Learn more HERE.

Leave a Comment