Maria Finn: Rethinking Our Relationship with Art, Food, and the Sea

From by Jonathan Bloom
Maria Finn: Rethinking Our Relationship with Art, Food, and the Sea

Maria Finn is an author, journalist, and artist. While she was an Autodesk artist-in-residence in late 2014, she set out to change our perception of food and food waste. Following an evening spent shucking oysters, she found herself faced with a mountain of shells. Instead of discarding them, she created beautiful oyster-shell tiles that now line the backsplash of her kitchen. Her philosophy of “waste not, want not” extends to her work foraging and wildcrafting in the San Francisco Bay, and her at-home holistic food preparation, using every bit of the animal. Finn recently completed a novel, Sea Legs & Fish Nets, based loosely on her experience working on an all-female fishing boat in Alaska. She is the author of five other books, including A Little Piece of Earth and Hold Me Tight and Tango Me Home. She writes for FERN and other publications.

This is part one in a two-part series; click here for part two on May 21, 2015.

Food Tank (FT): How did you get the idea to make tiles out of oyster shells? Had you seen other interesting uses for oyster shells?

Maria Finn (MF): I have used oyster shell tiles in my container garden; I use them as mulch that holds in moisture, looks good, and has a slow release fertilizer for Mediterranean plants. I’ve also used them ground up in the medium in my wall hanging indoor mushroom boxes. But I think the shells are so beautiful. To me, this is part of the pleasure of opening and eating oysters. I love their fractal texture and mother-of-pearl glimmer. For the tiles, I started off using ground-up oyster shell [mixed] with the cement, then saved the flattest pieces, or shattered them, for the top of the tile. I worried about the strength with the ground up oyster shells, as handmade tiles are a lot of work, so I then went with just cement and the oysters for finishing them.

I hope to start a native oyster colony on the hull of my houseboat. Not so much to eat, but because each oyster cleans 50 gallons of water a day. And their colonies are so beautiful. Mussels are also great filters, and I just learned that the pace at which they open indicates the water quality/pollution in a bay. So I’m talking with some people at Autodesk about a future project of hooking up an LED light sculpture that connects to the mussels [or] oysters on my houseboat and the lights will indicate the bay’s water quality. 

FT: I see your work through the lens of using the whole animal or plant, often called “tail-to-snout” eating. How much does avoiding waste play into your art, both practically and philosophically?

MF: I’m author of the TED book The Whole Fish: How Adventurous Eating of Seafood Can Make You Healthier, Sexier, and Help Save the Ocean. Much of this was inspired by the two years I worked monitoring the salmon run on the Yukon Delta for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. I spent a lot of time with Yupik women at their fish-drying camps. They use every part of the salmon—even turn the male’s milt [genitalia] into a sort of Popsicle, dipped in seal oil. Traditionally, they make lamps, bags, and other items out of salmon skin. I met the artist Emily Johnson at the Headlands Center for the Arts. She is Yupik, from Alaska, and also does this.

While an artist-in-residence at Autodesk, I wrote an Instructables post on how to catch a salmon, and then break down a whole salmon. I created recipes on using the skin, head, bones, trim…including salmon “Spam” from the collar and belly. At the time, I was also making items for the renovation of my houseboat, so I thought I’d give the salmon skin lamp a try. Another artist there, Jennifer Berry, has been doing an art project on roadkill, and is an experienced leather tanner. Eric Forman, a fellow AIR, was making light boxes. I collaborated with those two, and now have a very modern version of the Yupik salmon skin lamp. One of my neighbors is so excited by my salmon lamp; we are going to make more this salmon season—hoping we catch them.

FT: What other ways have you found for animal products that would otherwise go to waste (e.g., salmon skin lamps)? And do you think you’ll find creative uses for other animal products in the future?

MF: I have some wonderful earrings made from polished cow bones by Haven Bourque. I’d love to see what these could be used for with interiors. I’ve been saving dye mushrooms for fabric for my living room, and a current AIR at Autodesk, Andrea Blum, is growing fabric from kombucha and making all natural, plant-based dyes for it. I save coffee grounds for my mushroom boxes. It’s ambitious, but I might make milk paint and tint them with food waste or foraged plants. I’m also super inspired by the artist Phil Ross and his company MycoWorks who are growing furniture and boards out of mushroom mycelium. I’d like to grow my bookshelves, but I may be too impatient for that.

I also have a bag of abalone shells and mussels, and I’m thinking about what to do with them. I’m using the abalone shells as soap and sponge dishes for now. And I cleaned seaweed off the tie-off lines of my houseboat, and made resin tiles from them. There’s an artist making lampshades from seaweed—I may try a version of this, though I’ve been warned the light might be too green. I also keep threatening to try and grow lampshades from salt crystals. 

FT: How did working on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska impact your philosophy on food and your life as an eater?

MF: When I worked on fishing boats in Alaska, I loved a lot of it. The Pacific was always awe-inspiring and sometimes terrifying. Fishing helped me learn about the ocean and enter into a different way of living. There, the tides, the currents, the wind, and storms dictate your life. But, I never loved killing animals. I always struggled with that, and still do to an extent. I do believe it’s important to go out and catch and kill my own fish. It helps me to enter into the natural world. It’s “free,” as food once was for everyone, but I know the cost of my food, the work, the death of another creature, the time spent processing it. Herring are a pain to clean, but by going out and catching them each January, I’m among the sea lions and diving birds. I’m entering into the awe of the ocean, living a vital truth and I’m part of my ecosystem. And by doing this, I’m also a steward of it. People often ask me if food from the [San Francisco] Bay is okay to eat. My response is that if it isn’t, the bay needs to be cleaned. (I also swim at the Dolphin Club in San Francisco. We are in the bay year round, so the members are on the front line of oil spills and other pollutants.) The solution is not to import seafood. I make bottarga from the herring eggs, dredge and sauté the milt for a crostini, and when I pull up seaweed with eggs on it, I pickle this for salads. You can’t buy this stuff. I invite friends over for fresh grilled herring, and pickle the rest…It’s the best bartering chip ever.

FT: How much was bycatch an issue? Any estimates on what percentage of the catch was thrown back dead?

MF: In salmon fishing in Alaska, bycatch is very low, almost non-existent. It’s really a gold standard in sustainable seafood. The boats and nets are pretty small, and we fish right in front of the streams the salmon are returning to. Each stream has Fish and Game workers monitoring the escapement and only allowing fishermen to catch the salmon when there are enough up the river to spawn. In a three-month season, I think we caught two sculpins and three sand sharks—all were returned to the water alive. In a fluke, we caught one halibut and ate that for dinner.

Halibut longlining is a different story. When I was fishing there, all the commercial boats went out for two days the whole year, once in the spring and once in the fall. The boats were only allowed to keep and sell halibut, so millions of grey cod and black cod that were hooked and hauled up from the deep went back into the sea dead. I was 22 and from the Midwest and knew nothing about fishing, but was appalled by the bycatch and couldn’t believe Fish and Game allowed that to go on. I told the fishermen I’d take their black cod bycatch. I smoked a lot of it and it was amazing. Due to bycatch, they changed to an IFQ, or Individual Fishing Quota, so there’s one quota each year, and all boats have a percentage of the quota based on their prior catch shares. They can fish halibut year-round and also sell their grey cod and black cod. This sounded like a good solution, but the shares went to boat owners, not the captains or deckhands, so they lost out, and many of the quota share owners sold it to big companies. So a few corporations now own this public resource. Some areas are trying to create cooperatives with IFQ so a small fleet can go out.

On the subject of bycatch, the pollock trawlers in Alaska are allowed more halibut bycatch than the statewide quota for the rest of the fishermen. I believe this year’s allowable halibut bycatch was 4.5 million pounds. The pollock trawlers have allowable bycatch for king salmon on the Bering Sea, while the natives, like those on the Yukon Delta I worked with, are no longer allowed to fish for them. So I would argue that even though the MSC [Marine Stewardship Council] certified pollock as sustainable, they are still very problematic. California halibut are caught with hook-and-line; fishermen make less money, but these are pretty much bycatch free.

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