East Coast art: Rock, paper, pencil

Art and science create the perfect formula for American painter Tina Mammoser. Jeannie Swales caught up with her.

Artist Tina Mammoser exploring and sketching some of the geology to be found on the East Coast. Pictures: Tony Bartholomew
Artist Tina Mammoser exploring and sketching some of the geology to be found on the East Coast. Pictures: Tony Bartholomew

In the dimly lit hallway of artist Tina Mammoser’s Scarborough flat, her own abstract seascapes jostle for space with detailed geological maps of the UK, astronomical star maps and an inflatable dinosaur. In her studio at the end of the hall, vintage editions of the plays of Shakespeare line the Victorian mantelpiece.

They all reflect the many and varied interests of a modern-day Renaissance woman. Still only in her mid 40s, Tina holds a BS (the American equivalent of a BSc) in human development from the University of Illinois; a post graduate diploma in English literature and an MPhil in Shakespearean textual studies, both from the University of Dundee; an MPhil in publishing from the University of Stirling; and from the Open University, a BSc in physics (she specialised in astrophysics) and a diploma in geology.

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“I guess you could say I used to be something of an overachiever,” she says.

Artist Tina Mammoser exploring and sketching some of the geology to be found on the East Coast. Pictures: Tony Bartholomew

Growing up in Chicago in the 70s and 80s, Tina was fascinated by Britain. “I had this romantic image of Britain as the land of plenty, of great literature like Shakespeare,” she says. But it wasn’t until after she had completed her first degree at the University of Illinois’s Champaign campus that she persuaded a friend to go on holiday with her to Scotland, and completely fell in love.

“We spent two weeks in the Highlands, and it was like, yes – this is it, this is where I want to be!” she says. Soon afterwards, Tina was enrolled at the University of Dundee for the second of her many degrees.

Her MPhil in textual studies – a subject which is, she says, more science than arts, looking as it does at the make-up of the text, trying to decipher, for instance, what’s original and what isn’t – led to her next qualification, in publishing. That resulted in her landing a job in London, where she began to employ her latent artistic talent working in the graphic design department of a major bank, and also started taking painting lessons.

By the year 2000, she felt confident enough to quit her job and launch herself as an artist, subsidised, as she still is, by some freelance graphic design work.

By then, she had also begun to take a real interest in geology. “I did a lot of cycling along the coast, and I remember going to Lulworth Cove in Dorset – it was amazing. And I’d also spent four days cycling from Scarborough to Spurn Point.

“There were bits where the path I was following just suddenly fell into the sea, and I was thinking ‘But my map is only four years old,’” she says. “I had to know why, so I ended up taking the diploma in geology.

“Both art and science fascinate me, I think they’re just two sides of the same coin. Both are creative, experimental, changing, curious and trying to find ways to express the things around us. I believe very strongly that art and science are not separate worlds but are intertwined – artists are analytical and technical, while scientists are creative and open-minded.”

During that four-day cycling trip it rained constantly, and Tina promised herself that she would never return to the area. But friends in Yorkshire persuaded her to revisit, and when she finally decided that her interest in coastal geology and her art were becoming inextricable, Scarborough was at the top of shortlist of potential homes.

Utilising her artistic, publishing and business skills, she put together a set of geological sketches, mostly made in and around Scarborough – the exquisite leather-bound original sketchbook sits in her studio – and from it self-published a small volume of drawings.

Sea, Sky and Stone was sold through a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign, eventually raising more than £3,000 – nearly three times what she expected, and easily enough to fund her move north from London.

Since landing in Scarborough last July, her work has evolved from the misty, vividly coloured seascapes which evoke Rothko.

“A lot of people say that,” Tina says. “And actually, I’m not so keen on his work. His paintings have no subject: they’re entirely abstract, whereas mine have a very definite subject.”

Now, her focus is more on the area’s rich geological heritage, and rather than painting, she’s usually sketching, more often than not en plein air.

“It’s the rocks and the structural geology of the cliffs that fascinates me,” she says. “I look at something and want to know is it fluvial patterns of cross-bedding or solid chunks of limestone? Why is it like that? And then I want to draw it.”

Tina walks for miles in pursuit of her subject matter. One of her first drawing trips last summer was a walk around the Flamborough area with the Open University Geological Society. And she often walks, sketching as she goes, from Whitby to Saltwick Bay – “my favourite place ever”.

She shares her flat with her very own piece of living pre-history, an Australian bearded dragon called Mort – short for Mortbreath, a character in the World of Warcraft computer game in which she competes against her brother, still back home in Chicago. “She’s my dinosaur,” says Tina.

• You can see Tina Mammoser’s work on display in the East Coast Open exhibition at Scarborough Art Gallery until March 15, and at the Old Parcels Office at Scarborough Railway Station during Coastival on February 14. Or visit her website: http://www.tina-m.com. She will also be participating in the annual North Yorkshire Open Studios scheme on June 6 and 7, and 13 and 14.