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    A Man and His Seaweed

    From a 7-foot wardrobe of folders upon folders stacked neatly in rows, 5-foot-tall Larry B. Liddle, 72, delicately removes an art portfolio filled with pressed specimen pieces from his herbarium collection. What a sculptor is to clay, Liddle is to seaweed.

    For more than 40 years, Liddle has been researching, collecting and pressing a variety of seaweed specimens, turning a 3-D natural phenomenon into a flat work of art. Each piece is an explosion of colors, ranging from light pink to dark brown. Depending on the viewer, each piece is a new image every time.

    “People see different things in them,” Liddle said. And then he revealed another folder, filled with purple pom-poms, poinsettias, tree branches and dancing leaves.

    When Leonard Barton, the director of the Bravura Arts and Objects Gallery in Southampton, first came to Liddle with the idea of a herbarium exhibit, Liddle thought, “This is ridiculous.”

    “I’m not an artist,” he said. But as Liddle started gathering seaweed knee-deep in Montauk waters, he was inspired to present the seaweed specimens in a unique way, arranging them as they would appear in the ocean and incorporating his own interpretation of nature.

    “He has a propensity to prepare them in the most beautiful designs I’ve ever seen,” said Christopher Gobler, a former colleague who taught a marine biology course with Liddle in 2004 in Fiji and the Solomon Islands.

    Liddle’s collection, a fusion of art and science on white matboards, was the highlight of an exhibit, displayed alongside other 19th and 20th century seaweed illustrations and objects in seaweed motifs. He sold 40 pieces at up to $150, and former colleagues and students came from near and far to attend the opening night of his exhibit last year.

    “I think that speaks volumes for the affection that Larry’s former students hold for him,” said Steven Tettelbach, Liddle’s colleague who is currently a biology professor at the C.W. Post campus of Long Island University.

    But Liddle says he will not do another show. “It got to be too intense,” said Liddle. He spent several hours individually spreading each hair, being extremely careful to finish before the seaweed deteriorated to prevent the piece from molding.

    Liddle received his Ph.D. from the University of California, Santa Barbara, in 1964. And it was his experience in graduate school and one summer course at Wood’s Hole Oceanographic Institution that inspired him to enter the field of marine botany, which was relatively unexplored at the time.

    “One good experience can change your life,” he said.

    Liddle has now retired from Southampton College, Long Island University — now Stony Brook Southampton — after 30 years as a biology and marine science professor. Liddle helped design the newly renovated Marine Sciences Research Center at Stony Brook Southampton.

    But retirement can’t keep Liddle from his passion. He has joined the Prince of Songkla’s University in Thailand as a visiting professor. “I live on campus,” he said. “And I have a bicycle.”

    Liddle, a former president of the American Phycological Association — phycology is the study of algae — has accumulated a vast net of knowledge and experience that, along with his dry sense of humor, he brings to the classroom.

    “He introduced us to a new field many of us didn’t appreciate at first,” said Mario Sengco, one of Liddle’s former students who graduated in 1994 and became a marine ecologist. “We never thought there were so many different kinds of algae.” Sengco, who has a seaweed collection of his own, is also a researcher for the Smithsonian Institution, studying red tide. Red tide is caused by an excessive amount of algae in the water that causes the production of harmful toxins.

    “Larry encouraged me to be the best that I can be and pursue a career in research,” Sengco said. “We transitioned from student to mentor to being friends.”

    Brian Wysor, who graduated in 1996 and whom Liddle calls his “little clone,” as he teaches almost exactly the same classes Liddle taught, is now an assistant professor of biology at Roger Williams University in Rhode Island.

    “He’s an inspiration and a good friend, but I would say I was not a unique recipient of his encouragement,” Wysor said. “Many other students would not have been turned onto seaweed if not for Larry.”

    Wysor, who will receive Liddle’s entire herbarium collection this year, said he still gives his students the same advice on what he calls “Liddle life lessons.”

    “I probably chuckle to my students in the same way that he did with me,” Wysor said. “Larry was absolutely instrumental, without a doubt, to what I do today,” he said.

    Liddle speaks about Wysor with a kind of affection that is rare among students and their professors.

    Then, even more delicately than he had removed the portfolio, one by one, with wax paper in between, Liddle restacked the seaweed art and tucked it away in the closet.

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