By Claire Ferguson
Kristin Wornson is a naturalist, educator, and professional artisan living in Minneapolis, Minnesota. She features spectacular yet often overlooked plant life in her botanical jewelry. Originally focused on terrestrial plant material, she recently began integrating pressed marine algae, coral, and seaweed into her elegant work.
Kristin loves digging through piles of fresh ocean debris scouring for small, unusual specimens, and often coming across all sorts of interesting critters in the process—crustaceans, small fish, jellies, cephalopods, and more. “It’s amazing how much life can be washed up in these drifting kelp rafts,” Kristin says. “Rummaging through washed up coral is like rummaging through a pile of bones—the scattered, bleached calcified remains of large complex structures. I find the geometry and architecture of these colonial communities so captivating!”
Kristin loves seeing what might appear, as there are beautiful specimens on every beach. She’s been a beachcomber as long as she’s been able to walk, collecting shells and other treasures. Now, as an adult, she tends to leave things where she found them with a few exceptions, such as pieces of sea glass. Delicate pink coralline algae and elk kelp with baseball-size air bladders are definitely favorites for her to find, and giant fronds of Feather Boa Kelp always bring a smile to her face. “We used to wrap it around our necks in playful acts of dress-up and it still feels like a fabulous find,” Kristin reminisces. She loves the mixture of colors and textures in the tiny intricate branching of the large sweeping fronds called Plocamium pacificum, that grow on stalks hundreds of feet tall making up the bulk of disappearing forests of the sea. She is also fascinated by the sand, whether it be the white, sugary sand of the Caribbean or the black volcanic-sand beaches of Santorini, Greece.
Growing up in Texas, her parents brought her up to appreciate the natural world, spending a lot of time outdoors. She has fond memories of vacations spent hiking and camping either at the beach, or on road trips around different areas of the country. Kristin recalls, “On Fridays, Dad would arrive home from work—change into a T-shirt from his suit, put on his Australian bush hat, and we would pile into the Volkswagen van and head for the Galveston coast. Many hours were inevitably spent scouring for treasures.”
Her childhood experiences seem to have had a profound impact on her outlook on life. “I never felt different from the trees or the frogs, rather part of a larger community. I used to catch frogs, just to hold them and once a neighbor said to me, ‘you should kiss the frog, and maybe it will turn into a prince!’ to which I responded, ‘I’d rather have the frog’. I couldn’t have been older than four or five. I’ve always felt a deep connection and respect for nature. I hope that’s reflected in my work.” From the tiniest flower, to the largest mammal—colors, behaviors, movement, design—it’s an endless source of inspiration for Kristin.
Kristin’s background in biology also cemented her fascination with extraordinary ocean creatures. She spent one summer doing marine biology and research at the University of California, Davis where she studied the cannibalistic habits of a particular nudibranch (sea slug). She also spent a few years teaching marine science to kids at the Catalina Island Marine Institute. “I got to spend almost every waking hour exploring that habitat—an extraordinary experience. This also got me into teaching aboard small expedition ships, with work as a naturalist, which allows me to travel in the wild and sometimes largely unexplored places (including Antarctica). All of these experiences influence my work, trying to represent the beauty inherent there.”
While she’ll always have an attachment to that Catalina coastline and beaches in general, her favorite place to be will always be underwater. “In and under the water is where I feel most at home. The living reefs and their inhabitants; kelp forests—the sweeping underwater forests; this is where my heart explodes—where I can spend hours upon hours in a state of absolute fascination”. She’s been on the surface with a great white shark, underwater with hammerheads and bull sharks, belly to belly with giant oceanic mantas, and had an orca skim just underneath her in the Arctic—every encounter is absolutely magical. “I could spend every day of the rest of my life in the sea, and still be thrilled by the tiniest shrimp or the largest mammal—it’s always an extraordinary gift to be in that ecosystem.”
After teaching at Catalina for a couple of years and then working on a research project studying birds in Peru, her younger brother approached her to start a business. Loving the idea of being self-sustaining, after a few months of brainstorming, they decided to expand upon her jewelry making hobby—and took a leap! 15 years later she now is the sole-operator of the business.
Kristin describes her artistic process as relatively simple, bringing delicate bits of wild biomass home collected on walks in the woods, along sidewalks, and alleyways, letting the beauty of the plants take the forefront as the main design element. She’ll then press them under stacks of vintage phone book paper and preserve them between cut glass pieces, to maintain the quiet and subtle beauty of what she’s showcasing. She then solders the edges slowly, cooling along the way to preserve the plants sensitive to heat, and cleans and polishes the glass on a wheel.
Her metalwork involves creating a mold of the coral, injecting it with wax to create a replica, and casting in sterling silver. From there, traditional metalsmithing is used to replicate underwater animals and to set stones as accents. “It all comes from a place of wanting to represent wild beauty and giving people another way to see and connect with the beauty that’s around us”, Kirstin says, “The ocean has always been my natural habitat and passion and finding ways to represent that love in my work, while advocating for its protection, is where I’d like to be. The Decade of the Ocean seems like the right time to pursue that.”
Kristin now lives in Minneapolis where she does a lot of her plant-matter collecting. If visiting, she would take you to the local parks looking for wildflowers just starting to bloom, and her favorite peace park to see the crocuses just starting to emerge, the Dutchman’s britches and the bloodroot. For beachcombing on the Lake Superior shoreline, the northern area of Grand Marais and southern area of Bayfield are spectacular areas and give you the same sense of boundless expanse an ocean would. “The rocks themselves are so colorful and perfectly smooth—one could spend hours just walking the pebble beaches, as the waves lap or crash against the shore,” she says, “I still get chills every time I head north, when I first start to smell the pines and fresh air off the lake—there’s something mystical about Lake Superior and the boundary waters Canoe Area is some of the most breathtaking scenery anywhere. Worth the trip.”
After a day of exploring the cities lakes and bike trails, there are plenty of restaurants and coffee shops to enjoy and refuel. “My favorites are often ones I can get to by bicycle so I’ll name Tilia as a favorite cozy restaurant with excellent food; Hola Arepa for Latin American cuisine and great beach atmosphere; Broder’s Pasta Bar, for excellent homemade pasta and traditional Italian,” says Kristin. “I love St. Genevieve for wine and Victor’s for Cuban food. Spoon & Stable is fabulous for a special occasion. Joni’s Pizza is hard to beat for wood-fired food and cocktails, with a speakeasy in the back. Hai Hai is great for eclectic atmosphere and contemporary Vietnamese.”
If you’re interested in local history, Kirstin recommends the Lake Superior Marine Museum, the Great Lakes Shipwreck museum, and the SS Meteor Maritime Museum. Lake Superior Tall Ships Inc., is a great place to learn to sail. And the North House Folk School in Grand Marais is a fabulous place to take classes in traditional Northern crafts—including Inuit kayak building, Scandinavian bowl carving, and canoe paddle making. In Kristin’s free time she loves scuba diving, snorkeling, taking photographs, drawing, hiking, kayaking, and taking long walks. She loves to swim and read in the sun, and is curious about so many things. She will never tire of learning something new.
All photos courtesy of Kristin Wornson. Learn more about Kristin and her art at skippinglilies.com.
This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine September/October 2021 issue.