Sea of Heartbreak

Newport Art Museum



Joan Hall’s paper-based sculptural installations are complex syntheses of materials and ideas. Joan Hall’s love affair with handmade paper began in 1977. Since then, her work has evolved; moving away from printmaking on rectangular sheets of handmade paper, Hall began using free-form shaped papers to create sculptural works into which she incorporates various materials. In essence she has fulfilled her own stated desire to push paper “beyond what paper can do” leading some viewers to ask “Is that really paper?” Combining plastic, metal, glass, and Mylar with paper, Hall’s sculptures join rich textures and vibrant colors to create tantalizing constructions that are highly evocative and reminiscent of various natural and manmade forms—undulating currents, algae blooms, coral reefs, and fishing nets.

Hall’s mixed-media installations are visually striking and seductive, with an express purpose in mind. “My works use beauty as a means to draw a viewer in and impact him/her in a subversive and emotional way,” states Hall. “The works initiate a conversation.” Specifically, Hall is interested in highlighting the human footprint on nature, with a particular focus on plastic pollution in the ocean and its consequences. Water is of course essential for our survival. The human body is about seventy-five percent water. Two-thirds of the global economy is derived from activities that involve clean water resources in some way, yet as Hall explains, ten percent of the world’s plastic winds up in the ocean. Water pollution ultimately impacts everything and everyone. Non-biodegradable plastic waste “floats indefinitely, circulating the world,” Hall reminds us. It also breaks into tiny particles ingested by fish and birds. For “Sea of Heartbreak,” Hall’s stunning, large-scale works address increases in algae bloom and invasive algae, and refer to the coral reefs that are dying worldwide. Both are the result of increased ocean temperatures caused in part by plastic pollution. According to the artist, the sea surface temperature where she lives on Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, has increased 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit since the 1960s, and new research has revealed that plastic microfibers are in eighty-three percent of water samples worldwide.

With water pollution as a core concern in her artwork, it is only natural that Hall would work in a medium that involves water. Dispersing a range of fibers in water, Hall forms her sculptures using abaca and cotton pulp. She makes large sheets of paper up to 8 x 10 feet using kozo and gampi fibers that are hand beaten. Hall works with overbeaten abaca as a liquid drawing medium. She also employs high-shrinkage flax pulp to coat wires and forms that she fashions from plastic. For some of her sculptural works, Hall creates shapes with overbeaten abaca that is colored with dry pigments and metal fibers that rust in the paper. “The rusted pulps change colors as they dry,” describes Hall. “Oftentimes I am not quite sure what they will look like until they dry, much like printmaking where one really does not know what the end result is until it is pulled off the printing plate.” The resulting, richly colored layers of paper in her sculptures are meant to evoke the experience of looking down into ocean water.

Hall is drawn to this tension between control and surrender. She has learned to wholeheartedly embrace the unpredictability of her medium and materials. As a title “Sea of Heartbreak” is taken from Don Gibson’s country hit from 1961, in which the singer laments a lost love. For Hall, it references the ups and downs in an artist’s life and creative process. More broadly, Hall uses the title to point out the harm of plastic pollution to the world’s oceans, marine life, and ultimately humankind with all the resulting “heartbreak.” And finally, it refers to love and loss as two sides of the same coin—because in order to be heartbroken, one must love something or someone enough to risk being broken. It is a bittersweet realization. When viewing Joan Hall’s exquisite installations, one learns that in the many layers of paper, glass, and metal, we will find a vast ocean of meaning, symbolism, and emotion.

Francine Weiss, Ph. D
Senior Curator, Newport Museum of Art

Photographic image on vinyl, steel, acrylic
96” x 203” x 6”


Mixed media, handmade paper, glass
140” x 372” x 24”


Mixed media, handmade paper, cast resin mounting pins
144″ x 415″ x 22”


Glass, (blown and cast) sand, handmade paper
120″ x 120″ x 14”
(floor piece)
(In Collaboration with Ben Giguere, Gather Glass, Providence RI)

For The Greening of Our Beaches, Joan Hall has collected and displayed sands from around the world. This work of art was inspired by an article that Hall read about Miami Beach running out of sand, and experts proposing to replace the lost sand with ground glass*. The circular platform in the work evokes the continuous relationship of cause and effect and also builds on the artist’s personal iconography of compass shapes which can be found in the other works in this gallery.

The Greening of Our Beaches, explores the complicated cause-effect chain of events causing the loss of sand. Plastic pollution has contributed to the rising ocean temperatures. The rise in ocean temperatures has caused coral to disappear, which the fish feed on to create sand. Thus, beaches are losing an essential aspect of composition and identity: sand.

*Lizette Alvarez, “Where Sand is Gold, The Reserves are Running Dry.” The New York Times (August 25, 2013)A14 Francine Weiss, Ph.D.
Senior Curator, Newport Museum of Art

“The title is a play on my idea that if we ground up green glass there could be green beaches.”
Joan Hall


Mixed media, handmade paper
70” x 100” x 15”


To see a video of this piece, click here

Mixed media, handmade paper, steel
128” x 50”


Mixed media, handmade paper, steel, cast resin pins
80” x 98” x 12”



The “Art + Environmental Advocacy” panel discussion presented on July 6th at the Newport Art Museum was the most enlightening advocacy session I have ever attended. That it was launched and cadenced by the monographic art exhibition that surrounded the panelists in the premier Ilgenfritz Gallery of the Museum – the creatively buoyant, instructive and admonitory installation by Joan Hall entitled Sea of Heartbreak – was the immediate and tangible reason. This brave art was both the source and reference for a serious-minded discussion of ocean advocacy.

Hall’s suggestively animated artistry was viewed along wide gallery walls and on a shallow circular, centralized, platform of glass vessels and solids. These held variegated sands harvested from over 70 beaches nationally and worldwide, the latter, a collaboration with Benny Giguere of Gather Glass Studio called The Greening of our Beaches. Handmade papermaking, blown glass vessels, including glass cast with marine debris, remarkable colorism, the glass and sand, were Hall’s extraordinary means processed to highlight the unravelling of marine life ecosystems, without at all surrendering art to message. How enormously rare this artmaking is, where emotion and intellect combine into a unique modality. With emotional resonance stemming from the visual, Hall’s art stimulates us to understand the highly charged truths about the ailing sea, yet without political assault, without casting us adrift.

For Hall, a longtime sailor, the observant experience of voyaging on the sea is integrated personally and vigorously into an aesthetic for which environmental research and activism are co-expressions. The never diminishing role of pollution from increasingly minute presence of plastics in ocean waters, and their scaliness as they adhere dangerously to keels, the visible algae bloom and coral reefs beset by excessive ocean temperatures—all were part of the experience that propelled Hall’s making and the evidence in the Newport discussion. Probing questions by RI Public Radio environmental reporter Avory Brookins encouraged the elaboration of expertise from the artist, from the Congressional level via longtime environmental champion and regulatory policy maker Rhode Island Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, as well as from the local Save the Bay voice of Executive Director Jonathan Stone, a committed environmental educator who has steered Narragansett Bay protections and habitat restorations through legislative victories. Each expert earnestly addressed the successes and persistent challenges in their environmental advocacy and stewardship.

The panel discussion, by being set within the generative and complementary ambience of Joan Hall’s exhibition, was crystallized exceptionally. Here, the Senator’s relentless work against the machinations of the fossil fuel industry and climate change deniers, and Stone’s work as a public educator, could be understood in context, and in depth. What a programmatic model the evening was. Newport provided the Ocean State an outstanding example of art’s intensity and uniquely potent role in environmental advocacy.

Judith Tolnick Champa
​​​​​​​Independent Curator + Writer

My work reflects my passion for the ocean environment in expansive works and installations. Process and material exploration is a major part of my studio practice.
Information on climate change and scientific data are points of departure for my creative works. My art addresses the crisis of today; one of changing climates and changing chemistry in the world.
The exhibition, Sea of Heartbreak, addresses the increase in algae bloom, invasive algae, and dying coral reefs worldwide due to the increase in ocean temperatures- contributed in part by plastic pollution. Half of the plastic produced in the world has occurred in the last 15 years and plastic waste has been found in the ocean from the Arctic to the Antarctic and from the surface to the sea floor. My intent is to initiate a conversation and awareness about the deterioration of our greatest resource-water. The work uses beauty to conceal ecological Trouble.
Joan Hall, 2018