Tamara Thompson: Art as a Side Hustle

By Joanne A Calitri   |   August 30, 2022
Tamara Thompson with her seaweed art and her father Michael Harvan’s paintings on exhibit at the Apiary (photo by Joanne A. Calitri)

Sunday, August 21 marked the reception for the second public art exhibit for Tamara Thompson, with over 40 natural seaweed designs on watercolor paper, framed and matted, for wall and tabletop. 

Thompson, self-named “The Seaweed Artist,” is in a group show with her father, Michael Harvan, a local landscape painter, at the Apiary in Carpinteria through the end of the month. The exhibit was packed with local fans and newbies to her work, who inquired about her process and took home pieces of artwork.

Thompson openly shares about her process and how it came about, “My day job is the UCSB Preschool Program Coordinator for 20 years. I came to working with seaweed during COVID lockdown in 2020. I walked the Carpinteria beach daily with my two grandsons. We collected everything from seaweed to sea glass. I am infatuated with seaweed and thought, what can I do with it? I researched maybe making seaweed tea or beauty products, but it was laborious and costly to buy the equipment. I tried eco-printing [aka botanical printing, which is a process by which the colors and shapes of natural plant material are transferred onto fabric or paper] and failed. Then I researched seaweed art and found out about pressing it. The method is similar to pressing flowers, but with a new element to take care of – water. The entire process takes about a month due to the water absorbed by the watercolor paper; I change the paper every two to three days. When the moisture is removed, I start the pressing process. Here I use paint brushes to open up the seaweed to lay as flat as can be without changing its thickness variations, and to create a design. As it dries over time, the colors of the seaweed come out. I do not add anything to it or paint it.”

Initially, she gave her art away to friends and people who stopped by to view it at her Palm Loft apartment, a section of housing in Carpinteria dedicated to artists. Thompson credits Barnaby Draper and his partner Ashley Farrell for her second career as an artist. “When they opened up Santa Barbara Hives in Carpinteria last year, I stopped by to say they needed to have some seaweed art,” she says. “After a studio visit, Draper took 16 finished works to his hive for display and purchase. I had no idea it would be an art I could sell and be viewed as an artist. My father is the artist, and I come from a family of creative people. When I showed my dad my seaweed art, he said he was impressed. I always felt I had a creative side and now I found my niche.”

My Interpretation:

There are many fine art artists working with seaweed such as Josie Iselin in San Francisco whose focus is science x art, showcasing the elemental and environmental qualities of it. She first scans it, and then digitally creates images of the seaweed printed on fine art paper, and authors books on it. And East Coast seaweed artist Corinna Kaufman, whose first collector of her seaweed art on greeting cards when she was only 15 was renowned photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt.

Like Kaufman, Thompson uses the seaweed itself as the art, on a solid white watercolor paper, one piece of seaweed per paper. Her use of watercolor paper connects to the water element from which it comes. Each piece of seaweed on paper is carefully laid out in a natural way that displays its fiber and transparency, its roots, stems, and leaves – aka stipe, holdfast, and fronds, along with its natural color. The work is surrounded by elaborate matting and framing from modern to gold filigree. She is working in a range of sizes from 3×4” to 11×14”.

What would lend to the value of her seaweed art is to have the scientific and common name of each type of seaweed in the work, either on the front or back of the piece. One notes how its beauty comes around once removed from the beach fleas, pestilence, and odors usually surrounding it. 

After viewing the art, questions emerge, and allows the viewer to re-think about the common seaweed, the countless species of marine algae that grow in the sea. And further thoughts lead to what is the impact of seaweed on the oceans, its surrounding habitat, what marine life does it nurture, its use as a food source, its benefit for the planet and our lives. According to a news report in Time Magazine in November 2020, “Seaweed can play a huge role in fighting climate change by absorbing carbon emissions, regenerating marine ecosystems, creating biofuel and renewable plastics as well as generating marine protein.” 

Seaweed is a protected natural habitat in California. Harvesting it for “recreational use” is regulated by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife. That guidance, along with other related information is found here: wildlife.ca.gov/Conservation/Marine/Kelp/Recreational-Harvest

What is the opportunity? Art can be used to facilitate and educate, and here in Thompson’s art with the ocean’s natural materials, lies the potential to create new avenues for the enrichment of life on earth.  

411: Insta: @mermuse805

Tamara Thompson has a Master’s from Antioch University, Santa Barbara with a Degree in Education with an emphasis in Leadership and Social Justice.


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