Back in 1990 when I published “Maine Art Now,” I selected a Celeste Roberge sculpture for the cover in order to make the point graphically that the book made in writing — that Maine art had become a lot more than pretty pictures of lobster boats and lighthouses.
Roberge’s “Rising Cairn,” now in the collection of the Portland Museum of Art, is a self-portrait in the form of a steel cage filled with beach stones. It appealed to me then as now as the work of a Maine native, a Franco-American woman, a self-portrait in which the artist had internalized the Maine landscape by creating her own likeness out of the very stone of the Maine coast.
I was reminded why I liked Roberge’s sculpture so much when I saw “Women of the Gulf of Maine” last month at Elizabeth Moss Gallery in Portland. The exhibition featured attenuated bronze “women” cast from seaweed and wax. Again, the raw material of Maine used to create sculpture — in this case Giacometti-like bronzes about 12 to 16 inches tall — that both honor Maine women who have aided Roberge over her long career. They evoke wild mythical beings, like sea nymphs, sirens and water sprites.
“Women of the Gulf of Maine” came down May 27, but there are plenty of opportunities to see examples of Celeste Roberge’s art this summer at the Ogunquit Museum of American Art, Portland Public Library and the New Bedford Whaling Museum.
Roberge is a Maine artist born and bred. She hails from Biddeford and did her undergraduate work at the University of Maine in Orono and Maine College of Art. She then earned her MFA at the Nova Scotia College of Art before heading south where she taught sculpture at the University of Florida from 1993 to 2016. She now lives and works in South Portland, where her barn studio is filled with a lifetime of art old and new.
Roberge dates her love affair with seaweed as the stuff of art to 2008 when, walking on the shores of Nova Scotia, she found an elegant piece of sea lace. Struck by its beauty, she took it home with her and, having seen seaweed harvesters raking seaweed from a bateau, she decided to make a small boat out of sea lace.
Over the years since, Roberge has evolved from making art directly from dried seaweed to using it in an elaborate lost wax process that leaves the texture and form of the seaweeds in bronze. She has taken courses at Eagle Hill Institute in Steuben to learn to identify different kinds of seaweed and she is the lone artist member of the Maine Seaweed Council, which works to preserve marine algae ecosystems and support sustainable seaweed cultivation.
Roberge is serious about seaweed, not just because she finds it sensuous and beautiful, but because it holds the potential for environmental good such as being used as a feed additive to reduce methane from farm animals and removing carbon from the atmosphere.
“If seaweed can contribute to solving some of the problems we are having with the environment,” she says, “it’s a great thing.”
Roberge does not work exclusively with seaweed however. For the “Shifting Sands: Beaches, Bathers, and Modern Maine Art” at Ogunquit Museum of American Art (through July 16), she has created an installation entitled “Where have all the mussels gone?” made from 300 gallons of mussel shells collected from southern Maine beaches in the 1990s. Try to find a mussel bed in southern Maine today.
For “Sustenance” at Portland Public Library’s Lewis Gallery (through July 15), Roberge contributed a pair of bronzed seaweed boots entitled “Water Will Be Lapping at Your Doorstep” from her “Rising Seas(onal) Collection of seaweed-based sculptural clothing.
“A Singularly Marine & Fabulous Produce: The Cultures of Seaweed” at New Bedford Whaling Museum (June 15 to Dec. 3) will feature Roberge’s 220-pound bronze “Fisherman’s Knit Sweater” that used three species of seaweed to create its naturalistic woven pattern.
Roberge directed the whaling museum to several other Maine artists who work with seaweed, including Marjorie Moore, Barbara Putnam, Krisanne Baker and Lisa Tyson Ennis.
No matter what the medium, says Roberge, all of her art has a common source and inspiration.
“From stone to shells to seaweed,” she says, “it’s all on the beach. Maybe the next thing will be driftwood.”
Edgar Allen Beem has been writing about art in Maine since 1978.