BAR HARBOR — One person’s trash is Jennifer Booher’s treasure.
The Bar Harbor artist has been beachcombing her entire life, from the beaches of Guam and the shores of San Francisco to the Mount Desert Island coastline. She picks up broken seashells, sea glass, lobster claws, dog toys, rope, drinking straws, plastic spoons — whatever is in her view on any given day.
To Booher, everything she finds on the beach is just one layer of a complex story. She’s been telling some of those stories this year as one of Acadia National Park’s 2015 Artists in Residence.
The Southbridge, Mass., native moved around as a military brat, but the family always found solace at sea. “We were at the ocean every chance we got, from Cape Cod to Kennebec,” said Booher. She and husband Brian met as students at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. They moved to his hometown of Bar Harbor 18 years ago from San Francisco, Calif., and have two teenagers, Christopher and Tabitha, both students at Mount Desert Island High School.
For the past seven years, Booher’s focus has been her “Beachcombing Series,” in which she creates still-life photographs of her beach finds. The result is a colorful mosaic of the natural and unnatural.
A sculptor and landscape architect, Booher says that over time, she became curious about why certain things washed ashore and how they got there.
“I started by picking up pretty rocks with stripes in them,” Booher said. “Then I started wondering, ‘But how did those stripes get there?’”
Booher became involved with the online beachcombing community. She said beachcombers connect with each other to find out where various items washed ashore originally came from.
“There is a really active [online beachcombing group] in Wales,” she said. “They get stuff from Maine, like lobster bands. It’s really an international community.”
Throughout her years-long trek of the Mount Desert Island shoreline, Booher became fascinated with oceanography, geology and the history of the island.
She started asking friends to help identify items she couldn’t quite pinpoint, such as shells and other hard coverings that support and protects the exterior of some types of animals. She also reached out to the Bar Harbor Historical Society about some wooden poles that stick out during low tide near Bar Island.
The rotten stumps are what is left of the 1890s Rodick herring weir. “There is no herring now, and hasn’t been for decades. I realize what used to be here and what is gone as time goes by.”
Her curiosity about the depth of the coastline evolved into a bigger project, one “with a mind of its own,” she said.
“I made the connection that the things I was finding were part of a much larger system,” she said.
On Jan. 1, 2015, Booher set out on what she named her “Coast Walk.” She plans to walk the entire coastline of Mount Desert Island, beachcombing, examining the geology and researching the history of every sandy stretch and rocky cliff.
“It’s one part art project, one part oral history, citizen science, and just plain exploration,” she said.
Booher invites people with her along these walks and records their conversations. They may have expertise in oceanography or geology, or maybe they once played along a certain beach as children.
“Everyone has a different knowledge base,” she said. “Everyone has a story.” She documents each walk on her blog, along with photographs and transcripts of her conversations with friends and experts.
Booher’s husband Brian has joined the walk, regaling her with tales of growing up on the island. So far, their teens haven’t participated in mom’s project, but son Christopher is on the high school sailing team, “so he’s on the ocean in his own way,” said Booher.
As of this fall, she has made it to Seal Harbor after starting the walk in Bar Harbor. She hopes to finish the coast walk in two years. She walks year-round, and says she enjoys it in the winter.
“The terrain is a lot tougher. It’s so quiet and peaceful,” she said. “There aren’t even any lobster boats.”
Since her goal is to walk as much of the coastline as possible, Booher often finds herself on tricky footing.
“There are parts of the shore I didn’t think I’d get to, but I’ve gotten really good at going up cliffs,” she said. She carries a backpack with a blanket and first aid in case of emergencies, especially during the winter when there is no one in sight.
Since many stretches of Mount Desert Island are private property, she writes letters to the property owners asking for permission to walk along their shore. She has gotten a few no’s, but the majority are welcoming of the project.
Booher said that the project lends itself to becoming a book, but she also envisions a visual art element.
Booher’s favorite find in all her years of beachcombing is a pair of binoculars she discovered under the Bar Harbor harbormaster’s office. She imagined an elderly woman chiding her husband for losing his binoculars.
“I love finding things where you can imagine the story behind them,” she said.
To follow Jennifer Booher along her Coast Walk and to view the complete “Beachcombing Series” and more of her photography, visit jenniferbooher.photoshelter.com.