Ocean vibes abound in the Rhode Island studio of textile artist Ashley Van Etten, founder of the design company Willywaw.Photo Credit : Maaike Bernstrom
For 473 dramatic miles of New England coastline, the Atlantic Ocean captivates us with its tumbling waves, sandy beaches, and intimations of endlessness. One way or another, this salty beauty informs the art and craft of each of the artists in the following pages. You’ll catch a glimpse of what it means to them, how it swims in their lives, and where they go to catch their breath when they’re not in the studio. In their own words—as in their work—they capture the sparkle and essence of the ineffable.
Perfect Beach Day: “Visiting good friends at their beach cottage in Kennebunkport, Maine. Watching our kids play on the beach until sunset, and then enjoying a delicious lobster bake. Throw in some freshly cut hydrangeas….”
What She Paints: Elemental canvases that capture the moodiness of the sea (see Cape Porpoise Morning, above).
Snapshot: “I have made some kind of art for as long as I can remember, but when we moved to the U.S. from Norway 12 years ago, I finally had time to focus full-time.”
Inspiration:“A line from a song—they are scribbled all over my studio walls. A walk on the beach. Watching the old wooden pillars of the docks at low tide—such rhythm, almost as poetry.”
Favorite View: “A spot by the Kennebunk River that I have painted again and again. It is the most peaceful of places, with a glorious sunset. It inhabits the same feeling that I try to express in my work: peace, belonging, simplicity, and a sense of being grounded.”
Perfect Beach Day: “Summer sunrise ‘boot camp’ in Kennebunkport —I’ve done that for 12 years. Then walking the dog and having coffee with my husband on that same beach.”
Favorite Memory: “When I was little, Mean Joe Green came in for a bracelet. To be funny, my grandfather had me make it. I used my upper leg as the pattern and tied the knot around it. Joe put it on, and my 10-year-old thigh was nearly the same size as his wrist!”
Perfect Beach Day:“[It would include] taking my little green MG Midget to the Ram Island Yacht Club to help with the Mudhead Donzo Sailboat races. It’s just a great excuse to watch sailboats course through Fishers Island Sound.”
What She Makes: Tea towels, pillows, totes, and other textiles splashed with silkscreened images of sea life.
Snapshot: “I make things for people who are nature lovers; who appreciate beautiful, functional things that are handmade.”
Inspiration: “Nonfiction, especially books about Antarctic and Arctic exploration. My company is named after the katabatic winds in the Strait of Magellan, as described by a crew member aboard Endurance, Edward Shackleton’s infamous ship.”
Popular Designs: “In Rhode Island, ‘I Dig Quahogs’ and ‘Squid’ are local favorites, as is ‘Moby Dick.’ The New Bedford Whaling Museum’s reading of Moby-Dick [a 25-hour live event] always coincides with a bump in sales!”
Perfect Beach Day: “While I dream about living in Cornwall, England, closer to home a perfect day would be sea kayaking among the islands of Penobscot Bay, in Maine, or exploring the tidal inlet of the Narrow River right out our front door.”
What He Makes: Hand-blown glass balls (modeled on Japanese fishing floats), which he has hidden for others to find on Block Island since 1993.
Snapshot: “I did not formally create the Glass Float Project until 2011. The first year I made about 150 floats. We make 550 floats per season now. A few people have found one every year—I call them ‘orbivores.’ … The wonderful thing about this project is that there is a certain mystery that revolves around it. People want answers for everything in life, it seems, but even I do not know how many floats are still waiting to be found.”
Inspiration: “When I was 12, I traveled to England with my grandparents. At that time, an artist named Kit Williams had hidden a gold rabbit necklace somewhere in England and he wrote a book that would lead you to the treasure. I remember staring at the pictures and the riddles and I just couldn’t grasp any of it. But it was an inspiration for hiding a treasure to be found.”
Perfect Beach Day: “My wife and I own a 55-year-old sailboat. Sometimes we sail it to Block Island to bring floats to hide, and other times we just go out for a nice day sail.”
Inspiration: “We have a cottage in Blue Hill, Maine, and I often visit one particular section of coast, Flye Point. I’ve collected many shells there, and it’s the small imperfections that hold your attention. As I practiced my pleating, the colors of Flye Point crept into my work.”
How to Make a Seashell: “Arashi means ‘storm’ and shibori comes from shiboru, meaning ‘to wring, squeeze, press.’ Fabric is wrapped diagonally on a pole and pushed into folds, with the help of cotton string.”
A Final Thought: “So many artists have tried to somehow capture what the sea evokes. The truth is that we cannot even come close. The ocean engages all our senses in such a deep way.”
What She Makes: Handcrafted home décor. In 1998 this native Mainer and her husband, furniture designer Sherwood Hamill, launched their company with handmade rugs in designs such as ‘Ocean’ [pictured above] and ‘Waves.’
Snapshot: “For the first 18½ years we were right on Congress Street in downtown Portland—a short walk from the waterfront. We made our area rugs and all of our furniture on the first floor of that building. It was a dreamy place to work.”
Inspiration:“The ‘Sea Fantasy’ tapestry was inspired in part by a favorite painting by Maine painter Waldo Peirce. It was a gift from my father-in-law, and I cherish it.”
A Final Thought: “I think people give low tide and fog a bad rap. They are some of the most magical elements of the coast. Fog is moody, mysterious, ethereal, and otherworldly acoustical. And low tide is just one giant scavenger hunt, rich with natural fibers and lush seascape.”
What He Makes: For 10 years, Higgins has made prints “the old-fashioned way,” using a technique called gyotaku—applying ink to a fish, placing rice paper over it, and pressing—to create wall art, yes, but coasters and shower curtains, too.
Snapshot: “I stumbled upon gyotaku when visiting a friend. I spent the next few months learning the process, and I was hooked. The first fish I printed was a striped bass for my parents. They still have the print and it hangs over their mantel. The fish was served at a family dinner.”
Inspiration: “The Old Man and the Sea would be too obvious. Soul of an Octopus [by Sy Montgomery]. And there have been so many artists on Rocky Neck in Gloucester, past and present. They all offer inspiration, from classic to abstract.”
Favorite Fish: “Bluefin tuna—magnificent fish.”
Perfect Beach Day: “Watching the sunset with my wife at my studio on Rocky Neck.”
What Sea Bags Makes: Founded in 1999, Sea Bags turns recycled sails into rugged totes, saving more than 700 tons of material from landfill to date. Shissler came aboard as president in 2006.
Snapshot: “It still humbles me to see someone carrying a Sea Bag. It’s amazing to see [on Instagram] the remote destinations and unique uses of our beloved bags. This bag that we make here in Maine is traveling the world, as far away as Egypt and Antarctica.”
Inspiration:“Our waterfront in Portland. To take a walk down Commercial Street and see the fishing boats and buoys, for sure, but also the giant cleats and coils of rope around McAllister Towing, the aged piling around the visitors center. Everything is artistic.”
Favorite Design:“The ‘Wharf Tote,’ internally known as ‘the Jeb.’ This design was one of our originals … [and] one of our fisherman neighbors, Jeb, carried it every day aboard his boat. Jeb was a great friend and neighbor as we started up the business. Upon Jeb’s passing, his wife gifted me his tote back, and it hangs in my office today.”
Perfect Beach Day: “I love Higgins Beach, where I live. The beach is quiet and gorgeous, and the winter surf is awesome. I have found a sand dollar every January and consider it my good luck for the year. In the summer: Penobscot Bay, and particularly Isle au Haut. From the mailboat ride to get there, to hanging out on the rocky beach, it’s where I recharge.”
What She Makes: Porcelain “sea pods” that she seasons in the river behind her studio. The result: sea-urchiny pieces, colored by river minerals.
Snapshot: “A gentleman from England saw my work at the Sunapee Crafts Fair and told me, ‘There is a potter in England who puts his pieces in the ocean, leaves them in for a year.’ I was intrigued by the idea that what was in the actual water might do something.”
Inspiration:“My best friend’s grandmother built a house in a tiny coast town on Nova Scotia, on the Bay of Fundy. I fell in love with all of it—the bleakness, the fish smells, the incredible energy of the tide, the accent—and I’ve spent countless hours on the very rocky beach, immersed in patterns, rhythms, subtle colors, filling my brain with ideas.”
A Final Thought:“People sometimes ask me to describe my work—I call it ‘quietly wild.’ I have asked myself why I am not drawn to color and splash. I think I just like the quiet. I have always preferred dead flowers to live ones, the seeds or pods to flowers, fossils to fish. And I am intrigued by what is ‘inside’ of something, the skeleton. I love that there is incredible beauty in the microscopic world, and try to create the underneath of something.”