At the Seawall


By Susan Denniston


At the seawall I watch the ocean break up and scatter our ideals of bigness and lastingness. I watch the barriers we build erode and be built again. I see undercurrents of danger and futility; persistence and hope.



"Labyrinth of the Minotaur" © Susan Denniston

One Same Wave

"One Same Wave" © Susan Denniston

"Seawall No. 6-08" and "Stairway No. 2" © Susan Denniston

Seawall Study No. 6

"Seawall Study No. 6" © Susan Denniston

Physical Constants

"Physical Constants" © Susan Denniston

Tide Is High

"Tide Is High" © Susan Denniston



Artist’s Statement: Seawall as Metaphor


I live near the ocean and a concrete seawall. There I see fragility, vulnerability, and certain impermanence. About seven or eight years ago, I was first captivated by the strong angularity of the newly repaired seawall and its mighty attempt to hold back the ocean. Only a year later, it began to crumble and became deeply scarred by the power of the sea. Then it was rebuilt again, bigger and wider, over the remains of the previous seawall.

My Marks Exist for Now

"My Marks Exist for Now" © Susan Denniston

I came to see this barrier as a metaphor for so much. Seawalls are built by people and changed by the ocean. Sometimes they reflect a delicate balance. Other times they represent a powerful imbalance between nature and humanity, between what is revealed and concealed, between us all. I watch the ocean break up and scatter our ideals of bigness and lastingness…. The words that introduce this Seawall series are a mix of my own observations and other artistic influences. While I worked on these images, I became attuned to language that resonated in a particular way. My thoughts flowed around, as I jotted down phrases and quotes in my journal. I’d like to thank the eloquent writers who helped provide a verbal pathway into what I seek to express visually. A phrase of Holland Cotter's in a 2007 New York Times review of work by Joseph Cornell seemed to jump off the page at me. His context is not my context, but his words found their way into my description of the seawall:

'Act so that there is no use in a center,' Gertrude Stein wrote in the opening line of 'Rooms.' She did so with her cut-loose language. Cornell did so too. His reticent, riotous art, nursery size, ambiguous in meaning, ambivalent in gender, essentially religious in disposition, sent tremors through the monument called secular modernism, helped break up and scatter its ideals of bigness, highness and lastingness. Many of the most interesting artists today are in his debt."

Jennifer Finney Boylan also provided a nugget that rang true, wrapped in a New York Times article about the 2008 Beijing Olympics:

The Olympic hosts seem to want to impose a binary order upon the messy continuum of gender. They are searching for concreteness and certainty in a world that contains neither…. Maybe this means that Olympic officials have to learn to live with ambiguity, and make peace with a world in which things are not always quantifiable and clear."

And I found the work of German artist Anselm Kiefer stunning when I saw it at a 2009 Mass MoCA exhibit. It included massive waves of concrete and a fabulous quote on the exhibition wall from the French poet Saint-John Perse (Alexis Léger):

In vain the surrounding land traces for us its narrow confines. One same wave throughout the world, one same wave since Troy rolls its haunch toward us."

As I work, I hear persistent questions—sometimes when I’m methodically etching, inking, and proofing plates—sometimes when I’m layering color upon color with abandon before scratching and wiping away to reveal layers of texture and traces of earlier marks and decisions. Much as waves on the ocean seem to gather, arrive, recede, and repeat, I listen for answers in my heart. I hope viewers will see here an intimate record of exploration. I hope they pause to decipher these images through their own perceptions and memories.


Publication Information:




Susan Denniston

Susan Denniston

Susan Denniston is a printmaker and painter who lives in Scituate, Massachusetts. She has studied at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the South Shore Art Center in Cohasset, and Studio Camnitzer in Italy. Her prints and paintings are regularly included in regional and national exhibitions at museums and galleries and have received numerous awards.

She is a juried artist member of Boston Printmakers, the South Shore Art Center, and the Cambridge Art Association. She served as president of the Monotype Guild of New England from 2008 to 2010.

More of her work can be viewed on Susan Denniston's website.



I'm gravitated by your colors and texture. Are they oil based?? Sculptural, have you done work in 3-D, your work has a lot of sculptural quality. Thanks for sharing.

Usually modernistic art does not grab me, but I really like these images. They are a part of my consciousness since I moved to New England (as I grew up in Los Angeles). Seeing them does bring up memories of being along the beach here.. but also speaks to something deeper within me... something about the idea of impermanence, because I am sure that there was a time these walls were not there, and how was the beach "managed" before. Nature cannot be wrangled... for long at least.

Well, your words and art captivated me this Wednesday morning. An insightful and truly thought provoking statement. Thank you! ;)

Your writing and your images take my breath away. It helps me so much in understanding your art and you. I am lucky enought to know you well.
Thank you

The viewer is crucial to the artist and the art. Thank you very much for your thoughtful comments. To answer specifics - the images are created with oil paint or oil-based inks for the etchings or monotypes. And it is interesting, I am working on some more sculptural work right now.

Yes, impermanence is something I think of often, juxtaposed with the thought that "some things never change".

What a wonderful opportunity to share some of my work with the literary community who express themselves so eloquently in words. Working with Hadley Langosy to get the images and essay up was a pleasure. The insights and editorial talents of Martha Nichols were invaluable to me. And meeting and sharing time with Judith Ross in Vermont while we organized a mountain of clothing donations after Irene devastated the state led to this opportunity and connection.

Art is about making connections, and I am grateful for this opportunity. Thank you all.

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