Amy Benford considers her artistic output a collaboration. In 2013, Benford lost her 15-year-old daughter Abbie to anaphylactic shock brought on by an allergic reaction. In honor of her daughter, Benford now creates a line of lovely, whimsical little canvases made from beach finds, each paired with an inspirational word written by Abbie during her all-too-brief life.
The project came about through Benford’s fundraising efforts. In order to honor her daughter, and make sure that her death was not in vain, Benford started the KeepSmilin’4Abbie Foundation in 2014. The all-volunteer nonprofit raises money for research and development, educational programs and scholarships. The foundation has partnered with Harvard University’s Wyss Institute on Project Abbie, aimed at developing a wearable device that would continually monitor the biochemical signals that indicate anaphylaxis. Abbie’s life could have been saved had such a device existed at the time of her passing.
As part of Benford’s efforts to raise money and awareness, she established an annual alumni field hockey fundraiser in her hometown of Hopkinton. To help contribute to the fund, Benford started selling unique little canvases with images made from tiny pebbles, pieces of sea glass, driftwood, and other beach finds. The positive response to her artwork encouraged Benford to open up an Etsy store and to start selling her creations at craft fairs. On Island, she sets up at both the Featherstone Flea and the Chilmark Flea Market during the summer. The little easel pictures are also available at Off Main in Vineyard Haven.
Benford’s line is called BeachArtbyAB — AB being both her initials and those of her daughter. And Abbie is in evidence in the work in more than name alone. To include her daughter in the process, Benford meticulously pored through Abbie’s notebooks to extract words like Hope, Family, Friends, Fun, etc., and made rubber stamps from the words as written in Abbie’s handwriting. With each picture, Benford provides an easel and the choice of one of the words, stamped on a little card to be affixed to the easel. She also stamps Abbie’s initials on the back of each piece.
“She would have eaten it right up,” says Benford of her daughter. “She was very artistic. I feel a connection to her. I talk to her. I know she’s with me. This is a really healing vehicle for me.”
Images in the BeachArt collection include fish made from pebbles, colorful sea glass birds sitting on a branch, turtles, sharks, cows, and lots of little pebble people — sisters, mothers, lovers, and more. Some have drawn or painted touches. Others, like a many-jointed lobster, are just carefully constructed little 3D images. The small standing canvases make ideal mementos for friends and family, and are priced at the very gift-giving-friendly price of $20 (larger ones are a bit more).
Benford’s family vacationed on the Vineyard for years before they finally bought a house in Vineyard Haven in 2016. It was during her many long beach walks that the artist and full-time grade school technology teacher started collecting beach glass and stones. “Everything has to be found on the beach,” says Benford. This gives each piece a special Vineyard connection. For a recent series of scarecrows, Benford stayed true to her artistic creed by using dried grass from Owen Park.
In order to do such delicate work using such minuscule materials, Benford has to be very organized. She stores all of her beach finds in carefully labeled boxes. They are classified by color, size, shape, and even potential use. “One box has heads and shoulders, another knees and toes,” says the artist. One might think that she would eventually run out of colored sea glass scraps, but Benford promises that she’s well stocked (and continually replenishing) to meet demand.
The artist does custom pieces by request, and is hoping to create a series intended for bridal parties, perhaps with an image of toasting champagne glasses. Her creativity appears to be boundless, as do her energy and enthusiasm for the collaborative project. It’s provided a unique way to honor and remember her daughter.
“It makes a huge difference for me know that her words are out there, in other states, in people’s homes. That’s very special to me. My goal is for Abbie to leave a lasting impression.”
This loving, creative tribute to her daughter is only one small way in which Benford has made sure her wish is fulfilled. So far, the KeepSmilin’4Abbie Foundation has donated more than $100,000 to Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Project Abbie.
On the foundation’s website, keepsmilin4abbie.org, one can read more about the organization, and about its inspiration. The About Abbie section includes the following: “Abbie had an empathetic streak, and defended other kids around her who were being picked on. She was a social magnet and made friends wherever she went; she knew how to make the best of every possible situation.”
Sounds like she inherited this trait from her mother.