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Floating Free

A mutual love for art and the ocean sees foraged treasures from the sea transformed into intricate natural artworks.

Words by Tia Tamblyn | Images by John Hersey

Lift the latch on the wooden gate, and the landscape invokes an involuntary deep breath as it opens out, beckoning us towards expansive fields that lead down to rugged cliffs peppered with rocky coves. This quiet corner of Cornwall is the workplace and playground of seaweed artist Julia Bird, and today we are walking down to the coast to share breakfast as we forage for seaweed and enjoy a bracing swim together. The morning sun casts warming hues over the hills and beyond, across the stilled, blue ocean; the orange glow of browned-bracken hills is astonishing.

I’ve long admired Julia’s work and am intrigued to learn more about how it all began, as well as the intricacies of creating art from pressed ocean weeds. The chance to spend a morning with Julia, accompanying her on this well-trodden path, is a wonderful opportunity to walk in her shoes and experience this stretch of stunning coastline through her artist’s eyes. Julia co-founded Molesworth & Bird with friend and fellow artist Melanie Molesworth in 2018. Having begun with a simple collection of pressings, Molesworth & Bird now create a range of seaweed-inspired homewares such as cushions, bags, enamelware and cards, along with hosting seaweed pressing workshops that enable others to learn from, and be inspired by, the sea.

The ocean has long-beckoned Julia, who previously worked as a magazine stylist in London. This is where she met Melanie, and their mutual love for the natural world and artful storytelling evolved into Molesworth & Bird. “All my life I’ve been land-bound but always edging closer and closer to the sea. Being beside the sea, around the sea, that’s what inspires me; it switches something on and I just feel enlivened and creative.”

Julia has become intimately acquainted with the stretch of coastline that we are exploring together today, foraging for seaweed as she walks her dog Isla and swims the cool waters – a ritual that creates a steady rhythm to life through the seasons. Alongside making art, Julia shares that she has been on a journey of deep discovery and learning about the underwater world: “Once you start looking, you find so much. Most people don’t realise that there is this whole world of beautiful plant life under the sea.”

As we settle in amongst a rocky outcrop set just above the beach and warm stovetop coffee to accompany the blackberry and elderberry tartlets that I’ve brought for breakfast, Julia describes the process of pressing her foraged finds. After retrieving seaweed samples from the beach – always remnants that have been washed up – Julia returns to her cottage studio and will place individual specimens in a tray of water as she gently teases out their fronds onto watercolour paper using a delicate paintbrush, working meticulously to reveal their majestic beauty. Excess water is slowly drained away and it’s dried off using absorbent paper, then cushioned with layers of cardboard, newspaper and baking paper before entering the press.

The next morning is, for Julia, one of the most exciting moments as she checks how the seaweeds have responded. Pressing materials are carefully changed, and this is the point at which Julia will identify her finds, often spending hours poring over them with a magnifying glass, cross-checking against her books any less-common species.

There is always an array of seaweeds in the studio at different stages of pressing, all of which require regular checking, with most taking a week to ten days to dry thoroughly and reach maturation, whilst heavier wracks might require two or three weeks. This is a process that can’t be hurried; that requires constant, careful tending, and that invokes a sense of slow living that Julia thrives on, in stark contrast with her previous fast-paced London life.

As the business of hand-pressing seaweed has grown, Julia and Melanie have crafted their company to be environmentally respectful, and sustainability is etched into each element of their work. The resources they use for pressing and packaging are upcycled from home or bought using recycled materials, all of which are biodegradable; they only collect fragments of seaweed that are floating freely or have been washed up, with any leftovers enriching their gardens; they have sought-out local women’s groups who sew the tea towels and napkins that carry their designs; each visit to the coast is combined with a beach clean, removing rubbish that can be dangerous to wildlife; and as a company they support the work of the Marine Conservation Society.

After a pause for the second course of our beach-side breakfast – wild mushroom omelette, cooked up with the addition of some delicious rock samphire that we find growing wild – Julia teaches me about the vast array of seaweeds that can be found washed up on our local beaches as we slowly walk, talk and explore the wonders of weed-life beneath our bare feet. I find that it’s a meditative and magical process, waves gently curling around my toes as my eyes begin to tune in to the detail of what lies underfoot.

I hadn’t realised that there are both annual and perennial varieties of seaweeds; that around 80% of seaweeds are red, although many turn a ghostly white colour in summer as they become sun-bleached; that many seaweeds are epiphytes, growing on and receiving their nutrition from other, larger species; that seaweeds play an enormous role in providing the world’s oxygen... these are just some of my learnings from Julia as we forage together. The specimens that most delight Julia are those that reflect their deep relationship with the elements; they may be battered and torn, or perhaps nibbled by sea snails. “We love to press seaweeds that are not necessarily so perfect. It’s often the really ravaged ones, or the ones that have colonies of sea-mat growing on them, or where the colours have bleached in the sun or have changed form because of the time of year; those often become the most extraordinary pressings.”

This is the point of Julia and Melanie’s art. To open our eyes to the beauty of the natural world, to create a visceral connection that carries our relationship with the sea into our homes and invokes in us a sense of curiosity. “The joy is meeting your customer, seeing their eyes light up as they want to know more, and knowing that people are going to go to the beach and start noticing and, I believe, start caring a little more about the sea”. I ask Julia whether she believes that art can make a contribution to addressing the climate crisis, at a time when there is a global imperative to live more sustainably. “Art can show you the beauty of the landscape and what is out there; sharing it and having those conversations is really important.”

Our conversation is curtailed as we watch a cormorant dive gracefully into the ocean; neither of us can resist the call. We clamber down to the water’s edge and after an initial bracing yet joyful jolt as we submerge, the water welcomes us, and we swim out together into the gentle swell. The sea is clear, and we can make out a swaying bed of seaweed dancing slowly beneath our toes. As someone who swims regularly, I ask Julia about the impact that being in the ocean has had for her: “It’s transformative. Plunging into the sea regularly throughout the year is almost vital to my mental stability and it brings such joy. There are days when I feel tormented by whatever angst life brings upon you and I will bring myself down here for a swim and always my mood lifts. Sometimes I’m here only for an hour but just to be here, and on a day like today to be with the tranquillity. On another day it could be a raging storm and that’s invigorating in a different way, but just to have that little time with nature – I think it’s so good for the soul.”

Towelled off, layers on and warmed with a final coffee, we pack up our bags but before we wend our way back up the hill towards home, we scour the beach for rubbish. As with searching for seaweed, it’s astonishing – yet in this case utterly disheartening – how much has washed up, from bottles and thick lines of fishing rope to the micro-plastics that may seem innocuous yet cause such devastation to marine life.

Within a few minutes we are both laden with litter. For Julia, this practice is an essential part of ‘giving back’, and she hopes that her seaweed art provokes in us an understanding of our need to protect the marine environment, just as it connects us with its fascinating beauty. As we progress through this ‘decisive decade’ in terms of how we collectively approach the climate crisis, art surely has a critical role to play in drawing our attention to the beauty, fragility and inherent value of the natural world, as well as asking challenging questions of us about how we respond.

Julia and Melanie’s art does just that, celebrating the plant life that exists below the surface of the ocean, introducing us to extraordinary species and igniting our curiosity as we wonder at their shapes, colours and textures. And as we delve deep and explore the world of seaweed, we come to understand the profound role these elegant yet understated plants can play in re-shaping and regenerating our future.

Tia’s conversation with Julia can be heard in full in Episode 17 of her podcast, Breakfast & Beyond. Breakfast recipes, more information on the themes discussed and behind-the-scenes images from their time at the coast taken by photographer John Hersey can also be found on the website.

Molesworth & Bird’s pop-up summer shop will be open from 1st April to 30th September at 6 Lostwithiel Street, Fowey, PL23 1BX.

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