Spotlight: Beth Blankenship, Bead and Fiber Artist

Octopus and Crab in the Bering Sea

Spotlight: Beth Blankenship, Bead and Fiber Artist

When Beth Blankenship creates, she calls on her lifelong love for artistic pursuits. Her childhood experiments with crayons and a rich public school art education led Beth to her love of fiber arts, an art degree, a stint as an art director and, now, full-time studio work.

Beth Blankenship Portrait

How did you find yourself on an artist’s path? Always there? Lightbulb moment? Dragged kicking and screaming? Evolving?

When I started down an artistic path very early in life, my parents’ encouragement was a big factor. They both came from artistic families and cheered on their children’s creative interests. From the time we could hold crayons, my siblings and I were encouraged to draw, stitch, build—anything and everything that had to do with the work of the hand.

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While a teen attending public school in the state of Washington, I had no idea how incredibly fortunate I was in my education—my high school had 4 art teachers! The many classes I took had a big influence on the work I do today. In the 1970s there was a big emphasis on fiber arts, so I eagerly attended every class offered. I remember learning to dye, spin, weave AND batik! I also chose to take commercial art classes, which led me to attending a commercial arts college. Then after graduation, I got an art director’s job in Alaska where I live today. I “retired” from my job at an office to be a stay-at-home mom and I ended up getting a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree when my daughter entered school. I am now a full-time studio artist.

Does your environment influence your creativity?

My surroundings have always been a big part of the stories my work tells. During my childhood, I lived near the Puget Sound in the little town of Steilacoom, Washington. I would wander down to Saltar’s Point beach to observe the creatures living there and gather things to draw.

As an adult, I live in Alaska’s largest city, Anchorage, which has the Cook Inlet on one side and the Chugach mountains on the other. Since I’ve always lived near a body of water, there’s a special place in my heart for the life of the sea. Today, the view from my studio is the downtown cityscape framed by the beautiful mountains. So I see the offices of the oil company ConocoPhillips in front of me and the tide of Cook Inlet ebbs and flows behind me. Looking at this environment every day has a big impact on my work and makes me think a lot about the intersections between nature and ourselves.

Octopus and Crab in the Bering Sea
“Octopus and Crab”, “Bligh Reef” and “A Bering Sea Story”
Photo by Chris Arend Photography

Are there recurring themes in your work? Do you do series work? How does that affect your approach?

Because I treasure marine life, I’m creating a series of thread vessels that explores how human actions affect that environment. The pieces touch on narratives ranging from the devastating results of the Exxon Valdez oil spill to the symbiotic relationship between sea otters, sea urchins and kelp. They examine how easily Nature’s connections can be broken through human activities. So far, I’ve created 13 vessels and I have several more ideas running around in my head.

What are the properties of thread that give form to your ideas?

Underpinning my work is the idea that a thing standing alone is fragile, but many things holding together are strong. Thread is the perfect material to give shape to this fundamental truth. When I create an artwork with machine embroidery on water-soluble fiber the interdependence of the threads is obvious. Within my beadwork, even though they are harder to see, the connecting threads are still there.

Photo by Chris Arend Photography

What do you do differently? What is your signature that makes your work stand out as yours?

Many artists use machine embroidery on water-soluble fiber, but I would say my thread vessels are unique to me.

When it comes to creating, are you more of a planner or an improviser?

I am definitely a planner at the beginning of the process, but if a roadblock presents itself (and they always do!) I turn into an improviser so I can make use of my problem-solving skills. A big reason I create original works of art is because I love the challenges that crop up when I try something new.

Oiled Eider
“Oiled Eider” Photo by Chris Arend Photography

How do you make the leap from an idea in your head to the art you produce? Do you use a sketchbook or journal?

I usually start a new piece with a written idea—a few words or a short phrase along with a really rough sketch. Then I search online for inspirational images to alter and pull snippets from.

I’ve moved away from drawing in a sketchbook. So now, I layer separate pieces of tracing paper and combine different images to create an overall design. Some of my friends have started using their computer tablets to draw layers in the same way. That may be where I go next for sketching out my ideas.

How does your studio organization contribute to your work process?

My years of working as an art director turned me into a type-A person— so I’m very organized! My seed beads and beading threads are stored together by color families; and my sewing threads are also organized by color. After I decide whether I want to make a piece with beads or machine embroidery, I draw out a design then pull together the colors I think I might use and lay them on the drawing to audition them.

When the colors have been chosen, I put the threads and/or beads together into a container. Then it becomes my palette for the duration of the project. Using a limited palette is something I learned in my painting classes, and I find it really helps keep the color relationships in my artwork harmonious.

Spill Baby Spill in Progress
“Spill, Baby, Spill” in progress

What are the indispensable tools and materials in your studio? How do they improve your work?

A reliable sewing machine is essential to the making of my thread vessels. But I had a cheap machine in the beginning and the thread kept breaking—it was incredibly frustrating. In 2017, when I received a fellowship from the Rasmuson Foundation, the first thing I did was go out and buy a Bernina 560—I love it.  

For my seed bead stitching, my indispensable tools are much cheaper! I use Tulip brand beading needles and One-G thread. For years, I used less expensive beading needles and thread. The thread would eventually fray at the eye of the needle because the eye wasn’t smoothly finished—which meant I had to replace the thread more often—it was a waste of time and money. So now I spend a little more on my basic materials and I’m a much happier beader.

Close Up Spill Baby Spill
“Spill, Baby, Spill” in progress detail

Your work embraces both hand and machine stitch, but not in the same pieces. How do you decide which technique will best tell the story?

The concept and materials just speak to me. I do know this: stitching seed beads is very time-consuming, and while machine embroidery is speedier than beading, it’s still a major time commitment, so I try to think about whether or not an idea is important enough to see through to the end.

Because often I have both a bead-embroidery piece and a machine-embroidery piece in progress, I can go back and forth between the two on the same day which comes in really handy when I need to take some time out from a piece to think about where I want it to go and how I’m going to get there.  

What plays in the background while you work? Silence? Music, audiobooks, podcasts, movies? What kind?

Sewing machines are noisy, so when I create my machine embroidery pieces I mostly work in silence because I often need to focus on a particular detail. When I work on my bead embroidery pieces, it’s usually in the evening and I’m on the couch watching a movie—I don’t keep track of the plot but I do get the opportunity to visit with my husband!

Do you think that creativity comes naturally to people – or do you think creativity is a skill that people can learn?

What an interesting question! I looked up the definition of “creativity” to give an accurate answer. Oxford says it’s “the use of imagination or original ideas to create something; inventiveness.” I believe we’re all born with a natural creativity that, if nurtured, can develop and grow.

Just spending time in creative pursuits is a good way to develop creative talent. I like what Pele, the Brazilian soccer superstar said, “Success is no accident. It is hard work, perseverance, learning, studying, sacrifice and most of all, love of what you are doing or learning to do.” I believe the same is true of artists.  

How do you get unstuck creatively?

In 1988, after the birth of my daughter, I had postpartum depression and I couldn’t create anything for about 6 months. I was really stuck and it was a tough time.

We all have life events that can get us stuck—divorce, a job change, or the death of a loved one to name a few. Creativity is such a deep part of who we are that an artist will get back to creating again eventually. There are times we should give ourselves permission to be away from the studio as part of good self-care.

Beth Blankenship Quote

If you were no longer able to use the medium that you are now working in, how else would you express your creativity?

I’ll be like Matisse when he could no longer paint and have my assistants cut out paper and then make collages by my direction! 

Because I’ve explored a wide variety of media throughout my life, I’m pretty confident I’ll be able to shift to something else when my hands can no longer manage to stitch. I haven’t always created art with a sewing machine or thread and beads; I’ve drawn, painted and woven works of art. Media can change—it’s the wish to express something that is at the core of creativity.

Interview posted October, 2019.

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