The Seaweed Lady

“‘The shore is my source,’ says Rose Treat. ‘If an artist runs out of green, he runs to the store to buy green paint. If I run out of something I have to go to the beach.’”

Perhaps you’ve seen her: the little gray-haired lady who stands stooped in the surf at Inkwell Beach in Oak Bluffs, leaning on an upended rake, with the waves splashing her knee-high boots, the gulls circling her, the wind fluttering her bright headscarf in the early morning light.

She is intent on what lies beneath the surface – the shifting mats of green, brown, and red. She is known to most as the Seaweed Lady, having single-handedly made seaweed collage a recognized art form on the Vineyard. Her real name is Rose Treat. She’s ninety-five. If I have to get old, she’s the woman I want to be.
Early morning low tide is still her favorite time to go seaweeding. (To her it is a verb.) In warm weather she wears a swimsuit and no shoes, but on the day I go with her, following an autumn storm, it is cool enough for mudboots and corduroys. She has pinned her keys to her fleece jacket so they won’t get lost in the sand, and weighted her plastic collecting bag with a stone so it won’t blow away.
I pick some spongy green seaweed from a heap on shore and ask, “What about this?” She spreads it between her small fingers. “No,” she says. “It needs to be forked at the ends.” To me it is all the same. Seaweed. To her each piece holds particular meaning. She steps back into the surf and rakes at the water, an ancient harvester of the sea.
“The ocean is like one big, tremendous garden,” she had told me earlier. “A lot of people don’t see that. In our gardens we have birds, but in the ocean garden they have fish. It’s just a way of looking at it. There are thousands, literally thousands of species of seaweed. A lot of them have not even been seen, because man has not reached those areas.”
Ironically, Rose Treat, the woman who knows more about the Island’s marine plants than almost anyone, confesses to being “just awful in the water.” She learned to swim without getting her face wet. What she knows of seaweed comes from what has washed up on shore. That has been more than enough to keep her busy for over four decades. She can recognize a hundred varieties by sight and knows when each is in season: the blue-green mermaid’s hair, Lyngbya, which is poisonous to eat; the brown pony’s tail, Chordaria flagelliformis, which often hides beneath other seaweeds; the feathery Ectocarpus, which waves in the water like tree branches in the wind.
She is as interested in making art from marine algae as she is in the science of it. As a self-taught phycologist, she has collected and catalogued specimens of all sorts. In 1995 she got a call from the Smithsonian Institution asking her for a seaweed specimen for their Ocean Planet exhibit. “I was absolutely flabbergasted,” she says now. “How would they know about me?” Delighted, she went to Chilmark and found a fine example of the red algae Chondrus crispus, nicknamed Irish moss, and sent it. Her specimen toured the country and ended up on permanent display Down Under. “So that’s how a nice little seaweed from Squibnocket Beach landed in Australia,” says Rose. Her work has also been displayed at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole; the State University, Potsdam, New York; Barnard College; Harvard University; you name it.
Recently Rose Treat donated over three hundred mounted specimens to the Polly Hill Arboretum in West Tisbury. “I had a collection that I was trying to find a happy home for,” she says, “because I’m ninety-five and life doesn’t last forever.” Before it received her gift, the Arboretum staff had never really thought about seaweed as part of the Island’s plant life. Her donation inspired the creation of an herbarium. “They envision that phycologists from all over the world will come to look at particular Martha’s Vineyard seaweed,” says Rose. “So while I was doing this just for my own curiosity and my own pleasure, it turns out to be a very valuable, unique piece of Martha’s Vineyard treasure.”
When out trolling for seaweed these days, Rose separates what she finds into two categories, saying, “This one’s for science,” or “This one’s for art.” Before coming to the Island, Rose hadn’t imagined seaweed being used for anything at all. Born in Czechoslovakia, she had never seen the ocean and hadn’t planned to. Then in 1958, while living with her husband, the late mystery writer Larry Treat, in upstate New York, she fell ill. She was in and out of hospitals four times that year. Doctors could not find out what was the matter with her. “I got terribly depressed over my illness,” remembers Rose. “I finally got better, but the depression lingered. I went to therapists and things like that, but nothing helped. I said to Larry, ‘I think if we went someplace that was altogether different, I would have something new to get interested in.’ He had lunch with a friend who said, ‘Why don’t you go to Martha’s Vineyard – it’s an island, there’s an ocean.’ I thought, ‘Oh, an ocean, I wouldn’t mind living near an ocean.’ So that’s how we came to the Island. We had a cottage up in Lobsterville Beach. The first morning I got up, it was a beautiful morning, summertime. I took a walk on the beach and discovered the seaweed. I couldn’t imagine anything growing in salt water. I was simply amazed. It was such an expounding bit of knowledge to me. The whole thing was like a phoenix, like the bird that rises out of the ashes.”
That knowledge made her want to preserve seaweed as something precious. After experimenting unsuccessfully, she finally found she could float seaweed in a large basin of water and lift a sheet of heavy paper up under it, shaping the way it lay with a toothpick, then leaving it to dry on paper weighted with rocks beneath an old sheet. Seaweed, she learned, is covered in its own natural glue, called mucin, and will adhere itself to paper. After more trial and error, she learned to make note cards and bookmarks decorated with seaweed. It was therapy for her. She gave her creations as gifts to friends. More people wanted to buy them, and suddenly she was in business. She sold through shops in Boston, New York, and the Vineyard. “I never thought I could be an artist,” she says now. “I had no idea I could do this.”

When she first started, people said, “Oh, seaweed, that awful stuff.” Then, in the 1960s, folk art caught a wave, and seaweed as an acceptable art form rode in with the tide. Rose’s work earned a standing at art shows and won the Vineyard Treasure ribbon, which honors the longevity and importance of significant Island artists, at the All-Island Art Show in Oak Bluffs. She now has a whole wall full of ribbons in her studio and a reputation among collectors near and far.

In July, she will show again at the Old Sculpin Gallery in Edgartown. You might think the medium would get tiresome after nearly a half century, but Rose remains fascinated. “It’s become a part of me,” she says. “There’s no way of my getting out of it. I’m in it every day. If it isn’t the actual collage work, then it’s cleaning up my studio, or doing my files. It’s always still for the seaweed, whatever it is.”
She moves about her studio overlooking Major’s Cove in Oak Bluffs, lifting sheets from works in progress. “I love this one,” she says of some jitterbug dancers. “It’s so sassy.” With a few strands of seaweed she has captured motion, excitement. In another piece, called To the Parade, three people run off the page with a little dog close at their heels. Her Cheshire cats have coats of thick pink chenille seaweed, her button-eyed dogs appear perfectly pettable. Her roosters’ faces have personalities, with heads thrown back and beaks wide. “I hear them crowing,” says Rose. “That’s what I like about my roosters. Seaweed is a living thing, unlike paint, and I think that’s what makes them so alive.” Her herons are done in a single line that she lets run off the edge of the ragweed paper to prove it’s not ink, but something from the sea. Her mermaids and female nudes are characterized by spiraling breasts, yin-yang belly buttons, bushy pubic hair.
She leans and points at some brown and gold seaweed in a piece suggesting an Oak Bluffs pier. “See this hole?” she says. “I didn’t do that. It’s made by a fish nibbling the seaweed. The fish is my collaborator.” She smiles. “All of my art is done with the fish as collaborator.”
Each seaweed of the several she uses in a piece comes into season only briefly and must be used the same day that it’s harvested. That means some collages can take years to complete. “The shore is my source,” says Rose. “If an artist runs out of green, he runs to the store to buy green paint. If I run out of something I have to go to the beach.”
For a moment she loses her breath and must sit and rest. Trying not to feel sorry for herself, she reads a quote by John Updike that she’s posted beside her chair: “You can’t help being your age so put it out of your mind and appreciate the moment. After all it is not a very nice way to respond to the gift of life by being vexed at its ending.” She feels lucky to still be doing what she loves, to be recognized for her work.
Wanting her work to carry on, she’s taught workshops on seaweed and its uses. “You use seaweed every day,” she says. “It’s in shoe polish, in toothpaste, in ice cream, in machinery, in fertilizer. The Pilgrims used it for insulation in their houses.” In The Seaweed Book, written for children, she explains, “Seaweeds don’t have roots; they have grippers called ‘holdfasts.’ The only job the holdfast has is to keep the seaweed securely attached to an object in the water, such as a rock or a rusty anchor, despite the force of pounding waves.”
Because of her age, she sometimes wonders, Will she be able to do this next year? Next month? It’s unknowable. She steals off to the beach as often as she can, then skips afternoon naps to get the seaweed on paper before it ruins. The seaweeds come here in the downward sweep of the chilly Labrador Current or in the upward sweep of the warm Gulf Stream, making Martha’s Vineyard one of two places – the other is  Cape Hatteras – where the most unique and diverse range of seaweed may be found on the whole eastern seaboard. Now and then Rose will come across a seaweed that she has never seen before in all her thousands of beachcombing days. “That’s what I love about it,” she says. “It’s all mysterious and full of surprises, and I participate in the mystery and surprise. It’s a thing that keeps me alert and aware. It spills over into everything. It’s not just art, it’s more than that. It’s what it means to be a person on this planet.”
When you watch her in the water, Rose Treat looks tiny against the Atlantic horizon. She is just over five feet tall. The waves have wet her pant legs above her boots. Her rake is raised against the incoming tide. She is ninety-five and holding fast. She has lost her husband, many friends, some of her hearing and health, but today she is out seaweeding. The seaweed holds fast to whatever it can find in the force of pounding waves, and Rose Treat holds fast to it.