Under the Sea

New York artist details nature’s mystique

By Kalene McCort
Photographs provided

The way cerulean waves meet the shore, at times with great intensity and at others with a calming grace, holds the power to entrance any onlooker. Lonely lighthouses, barnacle-laden wooden piers and bits of luminescent sea glass, rendered smooth by the rough chill of a crashing tidal, all have a story to tell. Perhaps the greatest wonder of the ocean comes with the many natural gifts she bestows on the land. Pink-hued calico scallops, textured starfish, otherworldly horseshoe crabs and unruly coral all seem to hold a certain mystique.

For artist Jessie Peterson Tarazi, nautical is king. Originally from Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, this master of detail now finds herself within the cultural mecca of New York City. The dichotomy of her days keeps her inspired. Travels back home to the South are filled with weeks of thoughtful exploration, seafaring, and foraging. She later splashes her findings upon canvas in her basement studio tucked away in the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown, amid fish markets, bubble tea cafés and young galleries buzzing with creative energy.

“Nature’s palette is remarkable and a great teacher. I’m really grateful that I was able to grow up in a landscape spilling with color,” said Tarazi. “My strongest memory of color is being 15 years old, watching a thunderstorm roll in from our back porch. The green of the marsh looked almost fluorescent in the light and in contrast to the deep blue-gray skies around it. The color was constantly changing. As the heavy wind blew in the rain, you could see the dark line of the rain creep across the marsh and at the same time feel the wind pushing it towards you. It was stunning.”

Lowcountry Conch II, 48 x 40 inches, oil on panel.

The sheer power of nature has always captivated Tarazi, who earned an undergraduate degree in fine art from Carnegie Mellon University and later a master’s degree from The New York Academy of Art. The bounty of shells the coastal terrain produces depicted in her pieces are so realistic, you feel as though you could reach out, clutch one in your hand, hold it to your ear and hear the sweet symphony of ocean waves and wind. Lifelike, three-dimensional looking, they provide a glimpse into Tarazi’s Lowcountry childhood and travels.

In one piece, coral floats against a backdrop of darkness, which could either be the depths of the sea, part of a shipwreck or perhaps just the confines of a tattered box where they are stored away for safe keeping. Oyster shells, gator skulls, intricate nests, stacks of fighting conch shells, and even antlers, have all made appearances in her neutral-shaded paintings. Her work holds an understated elegance — juxtaposed collages depicting the ocean and marsh findings she’s either discovered after days of beachcombing or borrowed from a friend’s collection.

“The mood and temperament of my most recent work is directly influenced by the feeling you have when you are on the water and engaged with the environment around the islands’ marshes, but that might also be deeply ingrained in me and my person by growing up on the water,” said Tarazi. “I like being subject to the elements, the rhythm of the tides. The two go hand in hand.”

Her pieces are portals to afternoons dedicated to scooping up treasures on barrier islands, where toes sink effortlessly into pluff mud and the hours seem to slip away with the changing tide. While Tarazi paints still lifes, they evoke a sense of exploration. Gazing at her work, the viewer may be transported to long summers on the Cape or slow Sunday canoe rides down the Edisto River ­— a canopy of moss-covered trees springing overhead.  A long way from the sparkling sea town of Hilton Head Island, Tarazi manages to find numerous muses in the city that never sleeps.

“I believe my compositions have been influenced by the current contemporary art market in New York and going to shows — but wasn’t conscious — it just made sense to me,” said Tarazi. “When an artist puts love and detail into the mundane, they raise it up to the majestic, and I’ve always found that interesting — that I think is a modern aesthetic concept, but I use older painting techniques to achieve it.”

Devil’s Elbow Pseudemys, 48 x40 inches, oil on panel.

By highlighting the many wildlife remnants that so many of us salvage on a day of outdoor treasure hunting, Tarazi offers us a look back to days of rest, relaxation and rejuvenation — tinged with the smell of sunscreen and salt. Each piece has a personal essence. She admits that when painting starfish, she almost felt as if she was crafting an abstract portraiture of her Fiji-born mother — a dedication and interpretation of a woman raised on white-sugar beaches with swaying palms.

Currently, Tarazi is still clocking long hours in the studio and hopes to have her Lowcountry painting series completed by the end of the year for her first solo show. Pieces from that collection will be shown this summer in The Art Southampton art fair, as well as a group show at Flowers Gallery in Chelsea. In October, she will have a piece in auction at Sotheby’s New York.

As serendipity would have it, ties to the Lowcountry were not far from this city of boroughs and world-famous pizza that Tarazi now calls home. The landlord of her painting studio in Chinatown just happens to be the great-grandson of a former captain of the iconic Haig Point Lighthouse on Daufuskie Island.

“After talking to my landlord about my work, he went upstairs and came down with his grandfather’s handwritten memoirs of growing up on Daufuskie Island during the 1890s and 1920s,” said Tarazi. “It tells such a beautiful story of island life back then, and it is filled with stories about what it was like to live on the island.”

These time capsules to the area’s rich past have inspired Tarazi to embark on a new project that pays homage to her region of origin.

“I’ve converted our dining room into a ‘Sketchbook Studio’ and have been spending quite a bit of time working on creating a book that tells a visual story of the Sea Islands I grew up on, primarily Hilton Head, Daufuskie, Pinckney, Bears, Bulls, and Page,” said Tarazi. “It’s been very freeing to work small and explore visual ideas on how to communicate the area, its lifestyle, the history and its ecosystem.”

Next time the gloss of a Capri shell or the delicate tendrils of coral catch your eye, don’t be afraid to stop and ponder their anatomy. There’s something about the expansiveness of the ocean that reminds us of our own vulnerability but also provides a certain serenity — one that Tarazi manages to capture within her creations highlighting the sea’s maritime trinkets that scatter the shoreline. Your next prized possession may just be found seaside — hiding underneath driftwood or nestled in a jagged oyster bed.

Jessie Peterson Tarazi discusses her paintings of sea life.

Featured Image: Bear Island Alligator I, 44 x 34 inches, oil on panel.


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