April 2015

Putting a New Twist on an old Tradition

Cape Cod Life  /  April 2015 / , ,

Writer: Kathy Blackwell

Cape Cod artist weaves tapestries from seaweed, grass, and other natural materials.

Shannon Goheen is a landscape designer, and for more than a quarter century, her work has involved transforming the grounds of hundreds of Cape Cod homes and businesses into special, one-of-a-kind spaces. Since growing up in Maine, Goheen has felt a kinship with nature, and she takes a thoughtful approach when selecting the plants, trees, and other materials she uses in these landscape projects, bringing different species together to establish just the right look and feel, while simultaneously creating practical gardens, walkways, and borders. She seems to “understand” the plants, the trees, the flowers—what will work best and how elements will work together—so much so that one client has bestowed on her quite the nickname: “garden whisperer.”

Cape Cod artist weaves tapestries from seaweed, grass, and other natural materials.

And while Goheen, who owns Second Nature Gardenworks of Dennisport with her husband, Thom Huettner, spends much of her day weaving these materials together to build the landscapes of her clients’ dreams, she has another passion that also involves bringing natural elements together to create artistic and eye-catching results. Goheen, the “garden whisperer,” is also a skilled weaver, yet her tapestries are made entirely from plants, rather than yarn.

On excursions to the beach or on walks in local woods and fields, Goheen collects natural treasures—grasses and seaweed, berries and wheat—and then folds, twists, and entwines the botanicals into unique and attractive tapestries. She also uses flowers, willow and birch stems, and whatever other seasonal plantings she gathers.

Cape Cod artist weaves tapestries from seaweed, grass, and other natural materials.

Sometimes, Goheen begins a new weaving on the spot, out in nature—standing at the water’s edge to keep seaweed wet and pliable, or balancing a canvas-to-be in the cattails. Usually, though, she carries the delicate treasures home and sets to weaving them together on her kitchen table. Some of the foraged items, like sumac, must be dried first; others, such as seaweed and eelgrass, work best when wet.

“I get my ideas for weavings from many places,” Goheen says of her artwork. “At times, a frame will be the inspiration for a weaving. If I find a beautiful one, I will then decide what will go in it. Other times, I will find a beautiful type of grass, or a colorful flower, and that will inspire me for my next project. Thom makes the perfect shadowbox for each weaving, which helps to keep it protected and displayed in an optimum way.”

Goheen understands that her hobby may be considered unusual. “As far as I know,” she says, “no one else does this.” She has made tapestries ranging in size from a mere six inches to a stout seven feet, and her work has been featured in several local exhibits, including a recent solo show at the Thornton Burgess Society in East Sandwich. Goheen also has permanent installations on display in the admissions office at her alma mater, Connecticut College, and at the Waquoit Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve.

Joan Muller, education director at the reserve, describes the piece—which Goheen made to coincide with the organization’s 25th anniversary in 2013—as remarkable. “Shannon made it from eelgrass and Thom made the frame,” Muller says. “We had the perfect spot for it, and we all fell in love with it. The weaving is beautiful and fragile and we think it tells the story about us.”

To create her tapestries, Goheen does not work on a loom, but she does follow some basic weaving principles. She uses clamps to keep her work in place as she’s creating it, much as weavers add tension to the lengthwise yarns known as the warp. To serve as the weft, or the horizontal pieces, Goheen utilizes flexible or stretchy materials, such as seaweed and grass.

Cape Cod artist weaves tapestries from seaweed, grass, and other natural materials.

Working with these natural materials takes some getting used to, Goheen says, and over the years she has continued to develop her methods and techniques—both to create and preserve the weavings.

When she finishes a piece, Goheen often sprays it with an acrylic coating and then installs the work in a shadow box equipped with Plexiglas. Further, she hangs the artwork—strategically—out of the sunlight. “People often ask me how long these works last,” she says. “I once sold Victorian plant art at an auction house, so I would say 100 years or more is a good estimate.”

Goheen grew up in Presque Isle, a rural and sparsely populated town in the north of Maine. As a child, she spent her days exploring the landscape on foot or on horseback. This is where her appreciation for nature began to take root. “My horse, Lady, and I would go off and explore the land every day,” Goheen recalls. “We would have the most magical times together, and they all centered around the fields, the hills, and the plants and trees that lived on them. These experiences were my daily life, and I was in the land as much as it was around me.”

Cape Cod artist weaves tapestries from seaweed, grass, and other natural materials.

For Goheen, this love of the environment eventually brought her to Connecticut College, where she double majored in botany and anthropology. There, she worked in the college’s arboretum and learned about the science of plants. While renting a room one summer from a woman who just happened to be a professional weaver, Goheen fell in love with the artform and learned to weave on a loom.

After graduation, she moved to the Cape and began working at a local garden center; in 1988, she started her landscaping company and would later help form a Cape Cod group called The Weavers Network.

Eventually, Goheen says she tired of traditional weaving, and she began to experiment with the use of natural materials. “I walked away from a melon-colored mohair-blend warp destined to be a shawl,” she recalls, “and ran my fingers, instead, through slippery piles of black eelgrass on a West Dennis beach. The woven eelgrass piece led to my continuing exploration of the source of all fibers and to weaving with unlikely materials in their natural state.”

To Goheen, the eelgrass—which gets its name from its thin, slippery appearance—resembles yarn in its natural state; she wondered if it could be woven. To keep it pliable, she brought a pile home in a bucket of cold salt water and began to work with it. Eelgrass, which grows in beds in shallow salt water, is a flowering perennial, and it is a crucial part of Cape Cod’s eco-system because fish and shellfish employ the grasses for their nursery.

Goheen recalls that her first eelgrass “experiment” was time consuming—and painful. “It was hard work standing over a tray of cold sea water, weaving while the grass was floating, and it hurt my back,” she recalls, “but, I loved it.” Goheen devised methods to keep the piece together as it floated in the water. She used a tiny shuttle to weave the slim pieces of eelgrass back and forth, over and under the salt marsh grasses. The project took about seven hours, she says, but eventually her weaving took shape. “Sometimes, I have to whisper them into place,” Goheen says with a smile. “Plants don’t always bend in the way you want them to, and I try to tap into their intelligence.”

She entered the piece, which she called “West Dennis Beach,” into the Brewster Ladies Library’s annual weaving exhibit in 2003. “I didn’t know what my fellow weavers would think of it,” she recalls, “but they loved it.” Inspired by this first effort, Goheen continued at the craft, trying out other materials and creating more tapestries.

Over the years, she has collaborated with painter Carol Odell, of the Odell Studio in Chatham, on two mixed medium exhibits, including one that was held to commemorate the centennial anniversary of the (1910) musical release of “America the Beautiful.” The popular, patriotic song was first penned in the 1890s by Falmouth’s Katharine Lee Bates.

“I enjoyed working with her immensely,” Odell says of working with Goheen. “Shannon has a great eye for details, and it was really fun working as a pair. Our line of the song was “Above the fruited plain . . .” and it worked beautifully.” Odell’s painting features a river flowing through fertile fields; exhibited alongside, Goheen’s tapestry includes grasses, cattail greens, and palm fronds—and measures six feet by four feet.

A few years ago, Goheen traveled to North Dakota, where her family owns a cabin on Lake Metigoshe. One day during her visit, she found herself driving along fields of wheat, which reminded her of similar fields she had run along when visiting her grandmother as a child.

In this memorable setting, Goheen says the inspiration for a new weaving was born. Pulling over, she picked a few wheat stalks for mailing to the Cape. When she got home, she wove together the tall, straight stalks—which to her represented her childhood visits to Lake Metigoshe and ‘the west’—with thick, winding kelp from Cape Cod, which served to represent “the east,” or her life on Cape Cod today. She calls the piece “East Meets West.”

Goheen sells her woven tapestries, and custom pieces can be commissioned for clients looking for a keepsake of a special area of the Cape, or to artistically depict a wedding or other special event. For more information about Goheen and her work, visit secondnaturegardenworks.com.

Kathy Blackwell

A resident of Barnstable Village, Kathy Blackwell is a writer, enthusiastic traveler, and retired from a career as a kindergarten teacher. She is currently searching for her next big life adventure. She has taken on numerous assignments for Cape Cod LIFE including covering the majestic Iron Giants of Sandwich and writing a colorful profile piece on accomplished Cape Cod artist Marieluise Hutchinson.