The life of an illustrator is often varied and some jobs are smaller than others. Currently I’m slap bang in the middle of finishing a lengthy picture book and about to start a large gallery map commission – news of them later.
Instead, while I can’t talk yet of these other projects, I thought I’d write a post about a small commission I’ve just completed involving oysters. Yes, oysters. Those strange, grey molluscs with a story that travels from unassuming, salty poverty on one shoreline to the luxury of pearls and champagne on the other.
Oysters have a long history as food – their slow feet attached firmly to the beds of prehistory. Empty shells have been found in Australian middens, the ancient waste dumps of human activity, dating back as far as 10 thousand years. In Japan they’ve been cultivated since 2000 BCC at least and the Romans certainly had a taste for oysters, growing and trading them across Europe.
Plentiful stocks made oysters cheap, nutritious food for 19th century working people worldwide. The oyster beds of New York harbour became the largest source internationally during that century with a daily trade of 6 million shellfish from the hundreds of shop-fronted barges along the waterfront. Eventually the beds became exhausted with such hungry demand though. Pollution, disease and erosion destroyed most of them by the 20th century.
And so, now relying on harvesting from wilder stocks, the oyster transformed from a food for the masses into a rare and expensive culinary delight.
Cut to Greenwich, Connecticut in 2021 just down the coast from New York. This well-heeled town, full of beautiful houses on the shoreline, has been fishing for oysters since the 1840s and a, perhaps more sustainable, industry still survives today overseen by Greenwich Shellfish Commission.
The Commission manages and protects shellfish beds in Greenwich Harbour, used for both commercial and leisure activity. It also educates the community about the importance of shellfish, regularly organising clam digs and oyster farming demonstrations. I was asked to create an illustrated cover for a family guide, encouraging local people to grow their own oysters using cages dropped off the end of the town jetties. When the oysters are mature, they’re lifted at low tide from Long Island Sound.
Most important of all, it turns out that oysters are not only good to eat but also clean the waters they grow in, acting as filtering systems by removing excess nitrogen. This makes them doubly valuable as they’re good for the environment too.
Perhaps, like the oyster, this story has grown yet another layer. Mass industry turning to family gardening. Farming becoming an ecological support to maintain the world’s estuaries…
The illustration scope was small – no lengthy picture book or large gallery commission here – but if my cover entices people to learn and get involved, perhaps, in the future, the value of those seed-pearls of knowledge will be realised, making a greater and better change to our waters than its small size might suggest.