Connections that Shape Our Worlds
Profile by Kirsten Swann
As a child growing up on the Puget Sound coast, Beth Blankenship spent time on the pebbled shores of Saltar’s Point Beach, collecting the delicate shells she found hidden between its smooth stones. After college in Seattle, she followed a job offer north to Alaska, where the ocean wraps more miles of coastline than the rest of the states combined.
“I feel a real connection to the ocean,” Blankenship said. “Alaska has so much.”
She grew up in an oceanside town, met her husband in an oceanside city, raised her daughter near the ocean, built her life and career near the ocean. So when disaster strikes the ocean, she said, she feels that, too. When she thinks about the time the Exxon Valdez bled oil into Prince William Sound, the year the Deepwater Horizon spill drenched Gulf of Mexico beaches with even more oil or the day the drilling rig Kulluk ran aground in the Gulf of Alaska, she thinks about the deep connections that shape the world around her, she said.
“There are all kinds of symbiotic relationships that are set up in the natural world,” she said. “We humans, either willfully or unwittingly, alter those connections.”
Now she communicates those ideas with beads and fibers, through stitched panoramas and delicate beaded and embroidered sculptures depicting underwater scenes, marine wildlife and the ways human activities impact both.
A lifelong artist, connections to the natural world have shaped Blankenship’s art from the beginning.
In her youth, she illustrated animals and explored tactile connections through every textile class offered in her coastal Washington high school. She learned batik and practiced dying, weaving and spinning wools. As an adult, she used multi-colored threads to embroider aquatic scenes onto water-soluble fiber. She began working with beads after her daughter came home from school one day with a lizard keychain stitched from pony beads.
“She said, ‘Mom, I want to learn more!’’’ Blankenship recalled. “So I went to the library and I got this book on bead embroidery, and I brought it home, and we sat down and she spent about five minutes on it, and that was it for her — she wasn’t interested in doing it any more. But I got hooked.”
Beading was a perfect medium for conveying the things she wanted to express, Blankenship said. She experimented with various forms. Then she began using the delicate glass beads to create intricate scenes and sculptures revealing the environmental issues that had been weighing on her mind. She embroidered images of salmon and kelp forests, walruses and whales, oil spills and ice floes; she used iridescent beads to sculpt an eider, twisted on its back, fragile and oil-slick black.
“Those are all just things I’ve been thinking about for a while,” she said.
Blankenship brings her ideas to life from a studio overlooking downtown Anchorage, where the view stretches over streets lined with beige buildings and distant mountains draped with purple shadows. The ConocoPhillips building looms large in the foreground. Cook Inlet flows just out of sight.
From here, it’s easy to see the intersection between the natural and the manmade. Blankenship thinks about it all the time, she said. She thinks about resource development, climate change, ocean temperatures, acidity levels, sea life and human life and all the ways they’re connected. When she makes art, it reflects those things.
She displays that art in many places — in museums, galleries, online and on her studio wall. When she shares it on Instagram, she publishes the images with the hashtag #allconnected.
“Because that’s really what I am trying to say, is that we are all connected,” she said. “What we humans do affects the natural world, and inside the natural world, things are all connected.”
And things come full circle, Blankenship said. On a shelf in her studio, she keeps a glass bottle filled with pale, dainty shells collected from the rocks on Saltar’s Point Beach.