A deep painterly love for these mollusks
I once asked my mom if she craved anything specific when she was pregnant with me. I am one of six, so my mom’s ability to remember each pregnancy so clearly is very impressive. “Oysters,” she said. She wanted oysters all of the time with me in her belly. And so, my deep love and desire for oysters, I discovered, started in the womb.
As a kid I loved oysters, but only fried. The slimy texture was too much for me to handle; though, I loved the flavor. It wasn’t until I lived in New Zealand in fact, in my later 20’s, that I tried my first raw oyster. I had lived in New Orleans for 8 years and never tried them somehow. Sometimes it just takes the right circumstances to venture out of our familiar eating habits. I was on a holiday with some dear friends in the Marlborough sounds. This is an incredibly beautiful part of the country and we had decided to venture out in kayaks to explore the sounds. We came to an area that was half beach, half mud, still wading up to our knees in the water, and on the rocky boulders around us were lots and lots of oysters sticking into the muddy crevices. We pried some off, and tossed them in buckets, took them back to our bach (kiwi lingo for a holiday home), and used whatever tools we could find to crack them open. I used a hammer and eventually got the shell open enough to find the little oyster inside. Somehow in this new and very raw, gorgeous, and elemental feeling environment, how could I not try the oyster? I slid it into my mouth, chewing just a couple of times as I was directed to do so by my more experienced friends, and swallowed it up. So salty, so briny, so perfectly full of depth yet also so delightfully light in its texture. It was sublime. From that moment on, I was hooked.
Fast forward to where I live now, in Richmond, Virginia, with the Chesapeake Bay just an hour away. The northern neck of the bay is an incredible ravine of waterways where the bay meets the land. Lots of long snaking inlets coat this part of the state, and it’s all FULL of oysters. Thus came my oyster muse for my large painting, from White Stone oysters harvested over in White Stone, Virginia.
Oysters aren’t just delicious and beautiful, they also happen to offer an incredible filtration system for the water. Oyster reefs are actively being cultivated in the bay to help with the local ecosystem and water quality. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, “Without oysters, the quality of the Bay ecosystem suffers. Without their filtration clearing the water for light to penetrate, bay grasses can struggle to grow. Without healthy grass beds and reef habitat that provide refuge from predators and ample prey to feed on, juvenile fish and crabs may not survive to adulthood. In other words, more oysters equal better water quality, more fish and crabs, and healthier underwater grass beds.”
You can see, I have deep respect for these bivalves and their place both on the table and in the water. It was an easy decision for me to decide to paint one. Since I had decided to paint a large croissant, I thought why not go big with the oyster as well? This painting idea had swam in my creative brain for over a year before I decided to make it. It was that same show I referenced in my last post at Blenheim Vineyards that put a fire in me to create this painting.
With their natural translucence, raw oysters lend themselves well to watercolor as a medium. Watercolor itself is translucent, so you can get that quality of seeing through something more than you would with other paints like gouache. I will say in making this piece it was a lot more about holding back then adding. It’s more about how little paint I add, how lightly I go with my brush, to get those contrasted layers of color and texture. Similarly to what I’ve talked about with my other paintings, I really preserve the whitest areas by not touching them at all, unless absolutely necessary at the very end. You can see in this painting that the starkness of the shell gives much more depth to the oyster inside of it because I left it totally alone.
I chose this particular oyster based on a recommendation from a friend, Drew Lucas, whose is one of the owners of Tuckahoe Seafood here in Richmond- an excellent local seafood purveyor. He recommended White Stone oysters for their size, luster and coloring. I took the reference photo I used for this painting right in Drew’s shop, with my iphone, with the natural light coming through the window.
From this painting, came more oyster paintings. I seem to attract oyster lovers in my life and another dear friend from Maui, Randy Button, shipped me a whole box of oyster shells he had collected over the year from various waterways. Randy had a catering business in Maui that primarily focused on serving fresh seafood and raw oysters. He had been collecting these shells that he sourced from all over North America and primarily from the pacific northwest. Each shell was labeled with a tiny piece of paper wrapped with a rubber band around it with the variety name and source of origin. Talk about a really incredible gift. I still have this bowl of shells in my living room (which my husband and I refer to as our ocean room) and often will just look through these gorgeous natural sculptures. Randy’s shells led me to paint three more smaller oyster shell pieces, portraying the gorgeous variety present in each type of shell.
The original painting of the large oyster sold at the Blenheim vineyard show, and the limited edition prints have been one of my most popular pieces. There are around a dozen prints of this piece left in total. Because my love of oysters is so dear to my heart, I wanted this piece to be a bit more special. Not all of my pieces are limited, but the ones that are are for good reason.
Some oyster and non-oyster inspirations!
-If you don’t live on the east coast and already know about Oyster Oyster in Washington D.C., LET ME TELL YOU. It is one of the best restaurants I’ve ever been to. They are such an inspiration in so many big and little ways. I came to know of Oyster Oyster because the owner and chef Rob Rubba is one of the founders of Bakers Against Racism (a really incredible initiative if you don’t know about it). Oyster Oyster offers an all vegetarian menu + oysters. They encompass and exhibit sustainability on a very deep level. The restaurant sources their vegetables locally as well as their oysters, and offers a really incredible tasting menu. The tasting menu is the only menu, and they are reservation only, so every night they know how many people to serve and how much food to prepare, thus preventing so much food waste. They use zero plastic in their kitchen. I know that seems impossible but they have an open kitchen concept and if you go eat there you will see- not a single plastic cambro in sight! This is all just underscored by the quality and creativity of the dishes. So many wonderfully playful and creative ways to experience vegetables and oysters, using every part of the ingredient at hand. I can’t recommend this spot enough. You may have trouble getting a table anytime soon though, given their michelin star status AND Rob’s nomination for most outstanding chef by the James Beard Foundation this year.
-Did you know you can recycle oyster shells? Here in Virginia we have a recycling program through VCU that takes your used oyster shells and returns them to restoration areas within the Piankatank River. They have several pick up locations where you can drop your shells off to. The shells are aged for a year and then put into seeding tanks for the baby oysters (spats) to attach to the shells, which are then returned to the bay.
-Exciting unrelated-to-oysters-news: I’m illustrating a cookbook! If you follow me on instagram you may have seen this past week that it was officially announced I will be illustrating Samin Nosrat’s next cookbook. To say this is a dream come true would be an understatement. I am SO excited to be fully dedicated to creating the work for the book this year and am looking forward to sharing sneak peaks along the way. Incredibly grateful for the opportunity and collaborative process that comes with this kind of project.
Thanks so much for reading along and taking interest in the musings and stories around my work.