Flying Artist Preserves Beauty of Shifting Barrier Islands

June 16, 2003

For nearly a quarter century, Mary Edna Fraser has explored and photographed coastlines around the world from the open cockpit of her grandfather's 1946 Ercoupe airplane.

Fraser focuses on barrier islands, the sandy, attenuated, ever-shifting buffers between ocean and mainland that, from a bird's-eye view, present some of nature's most striking patterns.

She translates those patterns into batiks—artworks that also aid her mission to preserve the barrier islands. The batiks range in size from one square foot (30 square centimeters) to some displays that are five stories tall.

Fraser recalls her moment of inspiration—a joy ride with her brother over Georgia's Sea Islands when she looked through the lens of her camera and was overwhelmed by the beauty of what she saw.

"That was when I knew I had to focus my art on islands from the sky," says Fraser, who lives in Charleston, South Carolina.

She has exhibited her batiks—a traditional ancient art form in which designs are created on fabric by masking regions with wax, and then dyeing—at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum, the Duke University Museum of Art, the National Academy of Sciences, and the National Science Foundation.

Fraser has collaborated with Orrin Pilkey, a geologist at Duke University in Durham, N.C., on the recently published, "A Celebration of the World's Barrier Islands" (Columbia University Press). Her batiks show the islands' majesty and illustrate the science behind their formation.

Prime Real Estate

Because of their location, the islands are subject to intense beachfront development and almost every other kind of man-made intrusion. From the air, Fraser has watched the landscape change.

"I've flown from the tip of Florida all the way to Maine," she says, "but most of Florida's eastern coastline is not usable for my work because there is little natural aerial landscape left. False harbors, seawalls and jetties eliminate the beauty, all the way north to Cumberland Island (Georgia)."

From Georgia to North Carolina, relatively untouched barrier islands shield the coast, she observes. "Those are relatively all nice and raw still," says Fraser. "But when you're flying from Virginia up (north), you cannot get a natural shot as easily over the barrier islands unless you are over a national park."

The islands are among the world's most prized real estate—but their nature is to move. They are nomadic islands shaped by wind, waves and the underlying geology. Storms profoundly affect them. If storm surges or other forces cause the sea level to rise, the islands can migrate as much as 20 feet (six meters) per year.

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