Caren Zane paints oysters and horseshoe crabs almost exclusively. She collects the creatures herself, here on the Outer Cape. “All the oysters I paint I’ve picked and shucked,” she says. “Then I eat them with my friends.” Her horseshoe crab shells are found on nearby beaches, too.
Horseshoe crabs, for Zane, are stunning and compelling. “They’re beautiful if you get close and look at their textures,” she says.
One horseshoe crab might have barnacles, rocks, shells, seaweed, and small sea life all living on its own shell, Zane says. “I find it fascinating that horseshoe crabs have been around for half a billion years,” she says. “They convey it by what’s on their shells.”
She feels much the same about oysters. “If you look at the meat of an oyster, it’s gorgeous,” she says. “I’ve had people say they see a whole landscape within my oysters.”
Zane tries to honor these creatures’ stories through their texture, she says. With colors, too. “I try to keep my palette true to them,” she says. “I want to honor their ancient beauty and history.”
Zane grew up in Milton; as a child she took to art right away. “I used to do everything,” she says. “I used to do collage, and I used to make my own coloring books. I also loved building stuff.”
Her mother kept a table full of art supplies for Caren’s unrelenting artistic appetite. “She constantly kept me fed with different materials,” Zane says. She made things with wood, clay, popsicle sticks, and watercolors. “Anything that was in front of me,” Zane says.
She enrolled at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston but dropped out after three years because the environment made her feel “uninspired and restricted,” she says. Pursuing a more individual education, she began taking classes from artists “who are masters at their craft,” she says. “That was a better education for me.”
After leaving college, Zane says, she didn’t know what to do for a living. Her dentist brother offered her a job as a dental technician, and she took it.
“I loved it,” she says. She built and carved teeth, layering porcelain and matching pigments to people’s natural enamel. “It was a really creative career,” she says. “I was creating bridgework under porcelain and carving and finishing just like a mini sculpture.”
In 2006, Zane made the transition from dental technician to full-time artist. Her skill at sculpting teeth allowed her to segue into sculpture and pottery, she says. She did custom mosaic work for showers, kitchens, and bathrooms.
Five years ago, Zane started visiting the Cape. “I fell in love with the coastline and the sea life,” she says. “I became so inspired that I started doing a little painting.”
It was her first serious foray into painting. For a couple of years, Zane traveled between Boston and Cape Cod, “exploring, practicing, collecting, studying, and learning about marine life,” she says. Then, in 2019, she bought a house near Indian Neck Beach in Wellfleet.
Able to spend half her time on the Cape, Zane dove into painting — and into the abundance of oysters and horseshoe crabs here. She uses watercolors, which prevents her from working on an easel or a wall. But this suits her personality, she says.
“I love spontaneity,” says Zane. “You don’t always know how the paint is going to dry.” Her experimental nature has led her to try mixing other mediums like acrylic paint with watercolor. She’ll paint in layers, alternating between watercolor and wet acrylic.
“Certain colors do certain things,” Zane says. “Sometimes it’s amazing. And sometimes it’s like, ‘Oh, OK. I just ruined that piece.’
“I use my watercolors in a very wet way,” she says. “It creates a watery, oceanic feeling. I have watery paper and a watery brush and a watery mix of paint. It allows me to layer with more transparency. You see each color coming through. It gives you more depth.”
In one painting, a wash of light blue surrounds the copper-colored inner space of an oyster. Intricate veins of dark red, brown, and purple outline its creases and folds. In the center of the shell, what might be a pearl sits, luminescent. The painting looks like an oyster, but also a galaxy, or a bird’s-eye map of an island.
In another piece, a dark horseshoe crab pops against its white background. Several barnacles stand out on this crab’s shell. “They look a little bit like teeth,” Zane says. “It’s almost like my career is coming full circle.”
In Zane’s paintings, glittering golden splashes contrast with clouds of deep blue. Dots of white look like stars. Everything swirls together with dynamic energy. Each of these creatures is its own galaxy.
The indigo that serves as a color motif in the horseshoe crab paintings isn’t merely personal preference. “Their blood is used for pharmaceuticals,” Zane says. “The blood is blue.” Even if she’s painting a horseshoe crab using “butterscotch, coffee, or copper colors,” there will be an indigo line, spot, or circle. “It’s important to me to relay that crossover between science and art.”
At this year’s Wellfleet OysterFest on Oct. 14 and 15, Zane will display and sell her work at a booth on Main Street. “I want people to see the stories I’m telling through my art,” she says.
Zane says she wants to feel more involved with the Wellfleet community. “Being on the Cape feels completely natural and very fulfilling,” she says. “I feel the most inspired I’ve felt in a long time.”
Each Oyster an Island Unto Itself
The event: Caren Zane at Wellfleet OysterFest
The time: Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 14-15
The place: Her booth on Main Street, Wellfleet
The cost: Free